23 September 2019 – On 19 September, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) published an Opinion on the case of recently-released Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf, who was arrested in April 2017 in part for posts on social media protesting the Formula One Grand Prix and criticizing the racing outlet and the Bahraini government. The WGAD found her detention to have been arbitrary and unlawful, in violation of her rights to free speech and a fair trial. The WGAD particularly “emphasize[d] that no trial of Ms. Yusuf should have taken place,” and called for the Bahraini authorities to award Ms. Yusuf compensation for the violation of her human rights. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) were the source of the complaint to the WGAD. ADHRB and BIRD welcome the Opinion of the Working Group, and echo its calls for compensation to Ms. Yusuf.

The WGAD is one of the Special Procedures offices of the UN Human Rights Council. As part of its regular procedures, the Working Group sends allegation letters to governments concerning credible cases of arbitrary detentions, and may also render opinions on whether an individual or group’s detention is arbitrary and in violation of international law. The WGAD reviews cases under five categories of arbitrary detention: when it is clearly impossible to invoke any legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty (Category I); when the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of the rights to equal protection of the law, freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of assembly, among others (Category II); when violations of the right to a fair trial are so severe that the detention is rendered arbitrary (Category III); prolonged administrative custody for refugees and asylum seekers (Category IV); and when the detention is discriminatory on the basis of birth, national, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, economic condition, political or other opinion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other status (Category V).

In the present opinion, Opinion 31/2019, adopted in May 2019, the WGAD found that Najah’s detention was arbitrary under Categories I (lacking a legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty), II (in violation of the right to freedom of expression), and III (her detention is arbitrary due to the unfair nature of her trial).

Najah Yusuf, 42, is an activist and a former civil servant in Bahrain’s Labour Market Regulatory Authority. She was summoned to the Muharraq Security Complex by the National Security Agency (NSA) under false pretences concerning her son on 23 April 2017. The NSA officers subjected her to multiple interrogations over a five-day period, during which they threatened her, sexually assaulted her, prevented her from meeting with legal counsel despite repeated requests, and forced her to sign a confession without being permitted to read it.  The officers forced her to unlock her phone and accessed social media accounts, including a shared Facebook account that she was ultimately convicted for which shared photos and information concerning protests and calling for Formula One to cease racing activity in Bahrain, which she and others claim is “sportswashing” human rights violations. She was denied access to legal counsel throughout her trial and appeals, and her accusations of torture and sexual assault were never investigated, despite Ms. Yusuf informing the court on multiple occasions of the circumstances surrounding her coerced confession.

On 25 June 2018, Bahrain’s Fourth Criminal Court sentenced Najah to three years’ imprisonment on charges of (1) establishing social media pages that promoted terrorist activities, inciting hatred of the government, and promoting demonstrations against the government; (2) sharing videos that incited demonstrations; and (3) contacting people who had previously been stripped of their citizenship and sending false information to them. The appeals court upheld the sentence on 29 October 2018. After her conviction she was transferred to Isa Town Prison, where she was subjected to measures targeting political prisoners. These included restrictions to her right to practice her religion freely, family visitation, and time allocated outside the cell, as well as phone calls to her lawyer and family members. Whenever her case received international attention, these punitive measures escalated.

On 10 August 2019, Najah was pardoned and released with 104 other individuals, as part of a royal practice to mark Eid AlAdha.

In rendering its opinion, the WGAD made the following statements:*

“…during each of the interrogation sessions, in which the NSA agents searched her social network accounts without warrant and brutalized her, placed her outside the protection of the law . . . The Working Group further expresses its grave concern at the lack of judicial authorization or safeguards, which enabled Ms. Yusuf’s mistreatment during interrogations.”

“In the present case, the authorities failed to establish a legal basis for the arrest and detention of Ms. Yusuf. The phones of Ms. Yusuf were also seized and searched without a warrant. It stems from the facts provided by the source that her conviction relied namely upon the results of the search in her phones. The Government did not contest these allegations. The Working Group notes that such evidence should not have been used against Ms. Yusuf because it was obtained without a search warrant and resulted in some charges being brought against her.”

“. . . the Working Group considers that she has been deprived of her liberty for her exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as there is no legitimate aim or objective in a free and democratic society for her deprivation of liberty.

 “The Working Group cannot fail to express its gravest concern at the allegations of torture and ill-treatment described above, for the purpose of extracting her confession, which would amount to violations of articles 5 and 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration, and articles 7 and 10(1) of the Covenant.”

“. . . The Working Group recalls that, under certain circumstances, widespread or systematic imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of the rules of international law may constitute crimes against humanity.

* emphasis added

Commenting on the decision, Najah Yusuf said: “I am glad to see that the UN has acknowledged my suffering and recognized the injustice of my imprisonment. However, there are still many political prisoners in Bahrain who have endured similar mistreatment, including my former cell mates Hajer and Medina. What happened to me is unfortunately just one case among many, and these other cases cannot not be forgotten. The international community must call on the Government of Bahrain to end its systematic abuse against its own citizens.”

“Najah’s case is exemplary of the way that Bahrain treats anyone who dares to speak out about injustice or rights violations in Bahrain,” says Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “There are thousands of other prisoners in Bahrain who are languishing in cells for no reason other than having the audacity to call for reform. This is something that the international community needs to remember – particularly as Bahrain currently enjoys a seat on the Human Rights Council.”

Commenting on the decision, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD said: “For too long, Formula One have relied on Bahrain’s false assurances to distance themselves from Najah’s ordeal. With today’s decision from the UN, Formula One can no longer shirk responsibility and must now ensure that Najah receives the compensation she deserves. Their race in Bahrain continues to legitimize a regime which persecutes all dissenting voices and they should provide assurances that what happened to Najah will never be repeated. If they are unable to guarantee the safety of peaceful protestors, they must consider cancelling the race; a failure to do so means further complicity in Bahrain’s repression.”

ADHRB and BIRD welcome the Opinion from the WGAD, and emphasize the need for Ms. Yusuf to be justly compensated for the violation of her human rights. We further echo the calls of the Working Group in calling on the Government of Bahrain to fully investigate the allegations that Ms. Yusuf has made concerning her torture during interrogations and her allegations of ill treatment in Isa Town Prison. We also call on Formula One to take note of this Opinion, to support the WGAD’s findings, and to seriously reconsider its role in Bahrain. We finally call on the Government of Bahrain to release all political prisoners, and to release all individuals who have been imprisoned in violation of their rights to free expression.

Editor’s note: Ms. Yusuf is one of nine women featured in ADHRB and BIRD’s recent report, Breaking the Silence: Bahraini Women Political Prisoners Expose Systemic Abuses