Three Conferences Highlighted the Ongoing Systematic Human Rights Violations in Bahrain

This week, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) had the pleasure of participating in three online events; (1) International Day in Support of Victims of Torture in Bahrain, (2) Online Side Event During the 44 th session of the UN HRC; (3) Deepening Political and Human Rights Crisis in Bahrain. A wide range of issues were addressed during these conferences: yet a constant element that remained was the worsening oppression of the Bahraini civil society perpetrated and exacerbated by the Bahraini government during recent times.

The first event, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture in Bahrain, was hosted by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and ADHRB. The panel was moderated by Josie Thum, representative for BIRD. Panelists included; Joe Stork, Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch; Ali Abdulemam, Bahraini Human Rights Defender, Blogger and founder of  Bahrain Online and contributor to Global Voices as well as; Maya Oppenheim, Women’s Correspondent and Journalist at the Independent. Surprise panelist was Ebtisam al-Saegh, a frontline human rights defender in Bahrain.

The event centred around how torture is still a widespread practice in Bahrain, and the long lasting effect it has on its survivors. Joe Stork spoke about how torture had been used in the country since he started conducting his research in the early 1990’s. He maintained that the overarching issue as to why the practice has had a worrying recurrence is due to the issue of impunity of the perpetrators. Ali Abduleman spoke exetnsively about his own experience of torture, which included methods of humiliation, strip searching, and severe assaults. He maintained that torure was not just to extract information, but it was to utterly destroy your personality, your essence, your will, your hope and is directed against anyone who would dare to defy the regime. Maya Oppenheim spoke about her articles in the Independent that highlighted the cases of Medina Ali and Najah Yusuf, maintaining the fact that the UK tax-payer was still contributing to law enforcement institutions in Bahrain. Ebtisam al-Saegh also recounted her experience of torture, how she was severly physically, mentally and sexually tortured by Bahriani security forces. She maintained that the experience of torture is very different in real life, and still lives with the flasbacks of her ordeal.

A round of questions were posed to the panelists, including to Joe Stork that concerned why after 25 years does torture continue in Bahrain? His answer centered around the total absence of accountability within the regime since he first started to research the region in the early 1990’s. Mr Stork simply stated that ‘If there is no threat of punishment, security forces do not feel deterred from committing such acts’. The US and the UK are also too friendly with the regime to properly hold them to account, and even despite the attempts by the Obama administration to intervene, the government too easily managed to deflect these  condemnations through political interference.

In addition to Mr Stork’s questions, Ali Abdulemam was asked how he was able to overcome his experience as a victim of torture and what kind of rehabilitation process did he go through? Mr  Abdulemam stressed the importance for victims to seek help, in whatever form that it could take. Each case was different; some victims can find talking about the experience therapeutic, whilst others could find it re-traumatising. Conditions that can be caused by torture, such as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are not well known or understood in Bahrain. Mr Abdulemam stresses that it is vitally important for victims to not ignore the effects of torture otherwise it can destroy your life.

All in all, the event concluded very successfully. The panelists agreed that torture was and continues to be an endemic issue in the country. Its repercussions spread far and wide across society, and its effects on its victims continues even after the abuses have ended. The lack of rehabilitation for victims was identified as a major failure, and until the culture of impunity was properly addressed, it was unlikely that the widespread practice would ever be completely eradicated from the country.

The second event, “No Prosperous Future or Sustainable Peace in Bahrain without the Protection of HRDs”, hosted by the Gulf Center of Human Rights (GCHR) was held during the 44th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). The panel was moderated by Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of GCHR. The main topic of the event was the systemic and ongoing abuses against human rights defenders and political prisoners in Bahrain. All speakers expressed their joy over the recent release of Bahrain’s leading rights activist Nabeel Rajab. However, they all remarked how important it is to continue to pressure national and international actors to release all other political prisoners still imprisoned in Bahrain. These prisoners are at a great risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions of Bahraini prisons. Moreover, Husain Abdulla, panelist and executive director of ADHRB stated “allegations of torture are reported daily to our organisation”.

The second important topic of the event regarded the conditions of journalists and the continuous violations of freedom of the press in the country. Preethi Nallu, journalist and advocacy consultant at IMS, highlighted how for years,  journalists have continued to be prevented from freely reporting in human rights abuses. Since Bahraini press and media laws are intentionally vague in wording, this enables the government to detain and arrest journalists on terrorism charges by painting any critical coverage of the regime as a threat to national security or treason. For this reason, the government is currently silencing all the journalists who are reporting criticisms against the government’s actions against the spread of COVID-19.

The speakers highlighted how human rights defenders in Bahrain face a system of immense oppression that is trying to prevent them from demanding a more democratic government. In conclusion, this conference has strongly stressed the importance for the government of Bahrain to release all political prisoners still imprisoned in the country. These people live in perpetuous risk of suffering harsh and violent political persecution as a consequence of their political activity. In addition, all detained prisoners are at great risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions of Bahraini prisons. The international community has the responsibility in facilitating a process in order to have a healthy dialogue concerning the ongoing human rights abuses in Bahrain. During this conference, the speakers remarked on the great achievement concerning the release of prominent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab. However, they stressed this is not a moment of complete relief. The struggle continues and hundreds of other prisoners still need to be released. To sum-up, the conference called on the international community to stand against Bahraini systemic repression and for a visit to be undertaken by the UN human rights monitoring systems.

The third event, Deepening Political and Human Rights Crisis in Bahrain, hosted by ADHRB and moderated by its Executive Director Husain Abdulla, focused on the political situation and the human rights crisis in Bahrain. The central question regarded Bahrain’s ability and possibility to start its reconciliation process. Fabiana Perazzoli, advocacy assistant at ADHRB, highlighted the importance of the work that ADHRB is doing with MPs all over Europe. Thanks to this advocacy, it is possible to apply enough pressure to human rights violators to force them to change their political practice. The two main international obstacles against this kind of political process remain the United States and the United Kingdom. The two countries should hold the Bahraini government accountable for its actions against human rights. Instead, they allow the perpetration of these actions putting their economic and political interest in front of the Bahraini human right crisis.

“How many times do you want to be beaten by the same snake?” asked Dr Saeed Al-Shehabi highlighting the inability of the Bahraini government to keep its false promise of regime and political change. The same systemic pattern of abuses was also highlighted by Ali Mushaima who reported his personal story of torture and the death of his father Hassan Mushaima. The spread of a culture of impunity is what international actors and foreign countries ought to condemn, instead of perpetrating their own economic interests in the country.

During the conference, the audience was reminded that the Arab spring started with a series of demands for small political reforms to include a just economic system and human rights within the national political framework. From the demand for reforms, protesters started demanding a change of regime. Since then, the Bahraini political opposition has been strongly and violently dismantled. Today more than ever, with thousands of political prisoners and no political stability in the country, yet no reconciliation process occurred to rectify the stark societal divisions. This is vitally needed in order for the country to heal from the wounds caused by the regime reprisals after the 2011 protests. The panelists stressed the importance of the role of the international community along with international organisations in this reconciliation process. All speakers agreed that countries such as the UK and US needed to stop their support for Gulf discators and take a stand against the well-known human rights violations occurring against political dissidents. Bahrain’s culture of impunity continues to persist also because of Western countries’ complicitness and economic interests. Ali Mushaim maintained that we must look forward to rally support to put pressure on governments so that they will stop their support to dictatorships.

The three conferences highlighted the ongoing systematic human rights violations in the country. All speakers and activists involved demanded; for the release of all political activists still incarcerated in Bahrain; an efficient system of accountability to eradicate the culture of impunity embedded in the country; and stressed the importance of keeping up the fight for democracy and human rights in Bahrain. The work and advocacy brought about by international organisations together with the involvement of the international community are essential to start a reconciliation process that will be able to bring to the Bahraini people the civil, political and human rights that they have for long demanded.