Bahrain has normalized its state of emergency to silence dissent

In February 2011, tens of thousands of Bahrainis demonstrated across the country, advocating for a greater political voice and respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights. The Bahraini government responded to these peaceful demonstrations by declaring a state of emergency and instituting martial law. In the ensuing weeks and months, government security forces used violence to disperse protesters, killing dozens, and arresting hundreds.

In the wake of the protests, the government made several changes meant to address the protesters’ concerns. But now, almost a decade later, the government has revoked these nominal reforms and normalized the state of emergency. With the re-empowering of the National Security Agency – Bahrain’s secret police – to arrest and interrogate alleged dissidents in January 2017 and the sanctioning of military courts to try civilians accused of terrorism in April 2017, the Bahraini government has enshrined many aspects of the 2011 martial law into normal law. The transposition of exceptional powers reserved under martial law into ordinary law has given the Kingdom’s security apparatus greater leeway to silence peaceful dissent and to arbitrarily detain, disappear, and torture human rights defenders, journalists, activists, and normal citizens, in clear violation of international human rights standards.

In 2011, the Arab Springs movement swept through the Middle East and North Africa, bringing mass demonstrations and calls for democracy and political change. Nearly half of Bahrain’s population of 1.5 million people, including citizens of all faiths, took to the streets on 14 February 2011. In response, the Bahraini government, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dispatched security forces to violently quell the protests, leading to thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and dozens of deaths.

After a month of protests, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa AlKhalifa declared martial law and announced a three-month state of emergency from March to June 2011. This declaration of martial law established military courts, which can only legally be established during a state of emergency. These courts supersede civil law, giving the government the power to immediately try protesters, opposition leaders, and human rights activists without the nominal protections guaranteed under civil law. By 27 April 2011, authorities had referred 405 detainees to the military courts. The courts sentenced them to prison terms ranging from one to ten years on state security charges such as expressing hatred of the regime and disturbing public security. The courts denied defendants their right to due process and limited their access to legal representation, while also restricting family members’ ability to visit relatives on trial. Defendants’ trials lacked due process, which was further exacerbated by limited access to legal representation and even less access to family members. While Bahraini authorities insisted that the judicial process was legitimate, Amnesty International condemned the proceedings as purely political.

Even as military courts oversaw the imprisonment of hundreds of dissidents, officials took further steps to deter demonstrations. In reprisal for treating injured demonstrators, Bahraini authorities suspended and arrested 30 doctors and nurses, who worked at Salmaniya, Bahraini’s largest public hospital blocking injured protesters access to health care. In some cases, officials, empowered by martial law and government impunity, tortured medics to instill terror in health care professionals and deter them from caring for wounded demonstrators. According to Human Rights Watch, Bahraini officials cracked down on doctors to strike fear in dissidents who were handcuffed upon entry to the hospital and handed to police after receiving care.

Facing intense international pressure, the Kingdom of Bahrain ended martial law and the state of emergency in early June 2011, and later that month established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate the government’s response to the protesters. The Commission concluded that security authorities used excessive force against peaceful protesters, engaging in widespread arbitrary arrests, abuse and ill-treatment, denial of fair trial rights, and torture. The BICI proposed 26 recommendations that, if implemented would address the Kingdom’s ongoing systematic abuse. Although the king accepted the BICI’s recommendations and pledged to fulfill them, the government only fully implemented two of the recommendations– stripping the National Security Agency (NSA) of its law enforcement and arrest powers and outlawing the practice of trying civilians in military courts. These were later rolled back.

In 2013, the Bahraini government amended its counterterrorism law, expanding the definition of a terror crime to encompass non-violent protests, human rights work, and peaceful activism and dissent. It is in this scope that the Bahraini government in January 2017 restored the NSA’s powers to arrest and detain people suspected of terrorist attacks. This move came despite the NSA’s proven record of torture and abuse and in direct conflict with the BICI recommendations. In its report, BICI concluded that the NSA “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture.” Working under the expanded definition of counter terrorism, the NSA has used excessive, deadly force to break-up peaceful sit-ins, caused enforced disappearances, and harshly punished those who criticize the government online. One such instance was on 23 May 2017, when Bahraini raided a peaceful sit-in on the village of Duraz, killing five unarmed individuals and arresting at least 286 people, making it the bloodiest security force action since before 2011.

In March 2017, Bahrain’s parliament approved a constitutional amendment rolling back the kingdom’s implementation of the BICI recommendation concerning military courts. The amendment restored the military courts’ power to try civilians charged with terror offenses. While military courts were previously only employed under martial law, this amendment grants them exceptional powers during normal law.

These incremental policy changes amount to a normalized state of emergency, in which the government and its security forces are able to quell opposition and dissent with impunity, whether in the streets, online, or abroad. For example, the government has targeted the family Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a prominent London-based Bahraini activist and Advocacy Director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, in an effort to intimidate him into halting his human rights work. In response to his ongoing activism, three of his family members were arbitrarily detained in Bahrain in March 2017 following the reinstitution of the NSA’s powers of arrest and the passage of the amended counter terror law. They were subjected to gross human rights violations, including torture and coerced confessions. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the three were persecuted as a form of reprisal for Alwadaei’s continued activism.

Most recently, in May 2019, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa ratified an amendment to the anti-terror law that makes propagating, glorifying, justifying, or encountering acts that constitute terrorist activities a punishable offense. The new amendment expands the anti-terror law to include cybercrimes, granting the government the power to surveil social media and online publications to silence voices of dissent in the internet sphere. This incremental change empowers the NSA to violate human rights under a blanket of impunity that normalizes a de-facto state of emergency.

In Bahrain, the institution of anti-terror laws, military courts, and broadened NSA powers is a gradual codification of repression, essentially establishing military rule of the country which has seen the silencing of all instances of dissent in violation of basic international human rights. All the while, Western powers like the United States and the United Kingdom, who claim to champion democracy, will continue to engage in arms sales with Bahrain while turning a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating state of democracy in the region.

Alisha Parikh is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB