Panel Event – Bahrain must immediately release the detained HRDs and other activists

On September 22, 2020, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) co-hosted an online streamed event with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) on the sideline of the 45th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC). This event entitled “Bahrain must immediately release the detained HRDs and other activists” focused on the repression and reprisals faced by human rights defenders in Bahrain and on the constant violation of human rights by the government.

The September 22 event was divided into two parts. In the first part, the panelists assessed the history and the current work of Bahraini domestic civil society organizations and human rights defenders. During the presentation, the panelists covered the work of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and the history of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). The second part focused on the impunity of Bahrain’s governing elite and on how the international community can use its leverage, through legal and economic sanctions, to stop this impunity.

The events included domestic and international experts on the issue of human rights: Husain Abdulla, co-founder and executive director of ADHRB, Khalid Ibrahim, the executive director of GCHR, Devin Kenney from Amnesty international, Emilie Marietta an advocacy assistant of ADHRB and Sue Willman, a prominent UK human rights lawyer. The event was moderated by Antoine Madelin from the International Federation of for Human Rights (FIDH).

Husain Abdulla, the executive director of ADHRB, began the discussion by presenting the role of Bahrain in the Human Rights Council. He underlined the hypocrisy of the Bahraini government. As a member of the HRC, its role is to ensure the respect of human rights. During several interventions at this council, Bahrain encourages other countries to cooperate with Special Procedures however it continues to refuse any visits of Special Rapporteurs in its own territory. Moreover, Husain Abdulla also denounced the numerous repressions faced by human rights defenders in Bahrain which render their work more and more difficult. He stated that human rights defenders in the field want concrete action and call for a resolution at the HRC on Bahrain.


Khalid Ibrahim delivered a powerful description of the personality and engagement of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on the issue of human rights in Bahrain. Because he knows him and his family personally, he offered a detailed and emotionally-intense speech on al-Khawaja’s work. He stated that al-Khawaja has an optimistic, positive and generous personality and that he offered more than one decade of his life, beyond the possible related risk and personal ambition, for many defending and representing many discriminated groups. However, Khalid Ibrahim sadly reiterated that this international human rights defender is still in prison, serving a life sentence. Due to his hunger strike, which once again shows his unwavering engagement for the human rights cause, al-Khawaja’s health is deteriorating and the authorities of Bahrain deny him proper medical treatments. Khalid Ibrahim ended his statement highlighting that we must follow his example, and never stop fighting.

Devin Kenney, from Amnesty international, presented a historical analysis of the relationship between the  government of Bahrain and civil society. The core of his statement is that the Bahraini authorities have a long tradition of repressing civil society, which is expressed by the contradictory and waving policies. Indeed, Devin Kenney explained that the period between 2002 to 2009 was a moment in which the new King Hamad opened the space for civil society. For example, in this context, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and other human rights defenders successfully registered the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. However, after 2011, and the pro-democracy movement, the government of Bahrain pursued its long tradition of human rights repression, and increased its fight against human rights defenders.

Emilie Marietta addressed the culture of impunity in Bahrain which explains the ongoing systematic human rights violations in the country. Since 2011 and the violent repression of the pro-democracy movement, the Bahraini government has strengthened its restrictions and abuses against civil society and peaceful political opposition. Numerous abuses such as torture and poor conditions in prisons continue to be faced by every individual exercising their rights. Those numerous human rights violations illustrate how deeply rooted this culture of impunity is. Within this system, officers and security personnel feel protected even if they commit abuses. Emilie Marietta also underlined that the Prime Minister himself stated that laws cannot be applied to authorities. Even the son of the King, Prince Nasser bin Hamad, was  involved in the torture of activists during the 2011 pro-democracy protests and was never held accountable for those crimes. Emilie Marietta further established that the complicity of Western countries legitimized this impunity regime at the international level. Lastly, she raised the issue of the use of the death penalty in Bahrain and the very worrying situation of the 12 victims of torture facing imminent execution. In conclusion, she highlighted the responsibility that the international community and the Human Rights Council have to hold Bahrain responsible for its human rights violation.

Sue Willman delivered a comprehensive speech assessing the current actions undertaken by the international institutions to end the impunity in Bahrain. She clearly stated the advantages and the limitations of the international community’s actions. More precisely, she mentioned that the UN system is still dependent on the voluntary cooperation of the states, and that the government of Bahrain does not cooperate enough. For example the authorities of Bahrain do not allow for visits of special procedures. However, Sue Willman pointed out that international legal actions, coupled with bilateral diplomacy, can be effective for realizing wanted outcomes, such as the conditional release of Nabeel Rajab. To conclude, Sue Willman pointed out the positive development of Magnitsky type sanctions and their potential powerful effect in addressing impunity.

All panelists agreed on the importance of the role that the international community has in the situation in Bahrain. It is only with diplomatic pressure and actions, especially by the HRC, that human rights violations will stop and perpetrators will be held accountable. The event ended with questions asked to the different panelists on human rights violations and the situation of human rights defenders.