The National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) is portrayed as an independent entity charged with promoting and protecting human rights in Bahrain. However, the NIHR consistently demonstrates its involvement in concealing human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini authorities, and its role in further reinforcing the culture of impunity. Political prisoners, human rights defenders, activists, and opponents of the government continue to be systematically targeted by Bahraini authorities in an attempt to silence all dissidence in the country. In response, the NIHR releases statements asserting that “the Kingdom of Bahrain has become a model for political reform, democracy, respect for human rights and public freedoms, and adherence to the rule of law and constitutional institutions.” Moreover, in December 2020, the NIHR claimed that “the Kingdom of Bahrain’s interest in human rights and commitment to promoting and protecting them is genuine, constant and continuous.” These statements are in contradiction to the reality of the situation and demonstrate how the NIHR fails to fulfill its mandate in impartially promoting human rights in Bahrain.
Due Process Rights
Harassment of activists, human rights defenders, local NGO leaders, and other individuals occurs systematically in the judiciary, where they are often deprived of their due process rights. While it is well known that the Bahraini judiciary contains numerous flaws in terms of its independence and impartiality, the NIHR further contributes to these violations. From the moment a person is arrested, until the sentence is ultimately imposed, the process is marred by due process violations committed by various organs of the state. Numerous arrestees are arbitrarily detained and deprived of their civil liberties. In many cases, masked members of security forces conduct house raids and use physical violence on suspects and members of their household. Arrest warrants are rarely presented, and suspects are not informed of the reason(s) for arrest.
Authorities then subject detainees to physical, mental, and sexual torture during both their transfer and interrogation period. These practices are used to coerce detainees into making false confessions; confessions that are then accepted by the courts as fair evidence at trial. Furthermore, suspects are commonly denied access to legal assistance before the trial. Lawyers are often unable to prepare a proper defense due to the restricted access to evidence. Though these trials should be public, most take place privately. Moreover, a common issue within the Bahraini judiciary system is trying individuals in absentia, or in mass trials. Hundreds of government opponents have received prison sentences of more than ten years in trials of over 50 people, or in their absence entirely.
As such, trials are widely found to be in contravention of international fair trial standards, as outlined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, the NIHR claims that it is not a competent organ to review judicial decisions or remark on trials. This complete passivity is not justified; in practice, the NIHR has the full right to monitor and conduct field visits to any public place suspected of being the site of a human rights violation. It has the ability to observe proceedings, monitor due process violations, and gain access to all information needed to fulfill its objectives.
Furthermore, in prison, political prisoners and human rights defenders are subjected to the systematic use of torture and other forms degrading treatment. Further tools of oppression include restriction of access to adequate healthcare, the denial of hygiene products and lack of other basic services. Allegations of human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings, continue to arise, portraying the inability of the government to bringing perpetrators to justice. Rather, the government contributes to a culture of impunity by dismissing claims of torture, and even rewarding such behaviors with promotions to high-ranking positions. The NIHR’s failure to investigate such claims renders the body an accomplice in these crimes.
Corruption of the Legal System
The authorities systematically exploit the existing legal framework in order to arrest political activists and human rights defenders on the basis of contrived evidence. Bahrain’s promulgation of the Law on the Protection of Society from Terrorist Acts in 2006, which prohibits any action determined to be “infringing public security or endangering the safety and security of the kingdom or of damaging national unity”, has criminalized many basic freedoms of expression, association and assembly. The excessively broad definition of terrorism means that protected conduct and speech can be interpreted as actions aimed at overturning public order and endangering society. These laws also allow authorities to increase detention periods, impose longer prisoner sentences and deliver harsher verdicts, including the death penalty.
Moreover, amended press laws renewed restrictions on the use of social media and other online networks. The law now defines “social media misuse” to be the act of using social media to threaten community peace, cause division, and weaken national unity. This law focuses particularly on crimes of defamation, making insults, spreading rumors, and damaging individuals, bodies, entities, and state institutions. These actions are now punishable by imprisonment.
The NIHR receives numerous complaints regarding such human rights violations, usually concluding without an investigation that the violations in question did not take place.
- Violations of Three Women in Isa Town Women’s Prison
In 2018, three women detained in Bahrain’s Isa Town Women’s Prison filed a complaint relating to reprisals carried out against them, motivated by the activism of their family members. These reprisals include the prevention from participating in religious rites to commemorate Ashura, physical beatings, limitation of regular phone calls, and assaults requiring hospitalization. Nonetheless, the NIHR concluded that the women, “were able to practice their faith and worship without undue restrictions,” and that there was “no case of intentional denial” with regards to the denial of calls or family visits. The NIHR further claimed that the hospitalization of one of the women was not the fault of the prison authorities. These claims were made despite a UN Secretary General report referencing these human rights violations. Such statements only further demonstrate the lack of credibility and independence of the Institute.
- Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Mohammed Abbas
On July 18, 2013, Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Mohammed Abbas was arrested by police without a warrant after being pulled over in his car. During the interrogation period, he was beaten and tortured. After days of being subjected to this treatment, he signed a pre-written, false confession, while blindfolded. Sheikh Abbas was denied legal assistance throughout the entire investigation and during all three trials, during which he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. During his imprisonment, he has continued to experience torture, enforced disappearances, restriction of contact with his family members, and the routine denial of medical assistance. The NIHR’s response to Sheikh Abbas’ case has been completely insufficient. They have consistently denied the allegations, aligning themselves with the government in suggesting that Mr Abbas refused to speak with his family when the opportunity was provided to him.
- Ali AbdulHusain al-Wazeer
In 2014, Ali AbdulHusain al-Wazeer was arrested without a proper warrant and was not provided with a credible reason for his detainment. He was forcibly disappeared, and then spent 40 days in solitary confinement. The conditions of the cells did not adhere to international standards, and authorities regularly subjected al-Wazeer to physical and psychological torture. In a biased trial, he was sentenced to 56 years in prison. Despite his submission to the NIHR alleging these serious violations of human rights, the NIHR stated that it had properly investigated the case and confirmed that Mr. al-Wazeer had not been mistreated or denied any of his basic rights.
Violations of International Law
The United Nations Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions, also known as the Paris Principles, provides the international minimum standards for effective and competent national human rights institutions. The Paris Principles set out six main criteria that these institutions must satisfy in order to effectively promote and protect human rights. The criteria include mandate and competence, autonomy from government, independence guaranteed by statute or constitution, pluralism, adequate resources, and adequate powers of investigation. These six criteria are also required in order to receive accreditation from the International Coordinating Committee (ICC).
The monitoring of an institutions’ adherence to these criteria is conducted by the Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI). In its 2016 review, the SCA gave the NIHR a “B” rating, meaning that they only partially comply with the Paris Principles. They found that the NIHR could strengthen their compliance in all six areas, and stated that both legal and practical dimensions of their work should be improved. The SCA was particularly concerned with the lack of transparency of the NIHR when conducting visits to places where suspected human rights violations occurred. They have encouraged the NIHR to carry out visits spontaneously, to prevent institutions from concealing human rights abuses and selectively adhering to rules only during visits. Furthermore, the NIHR does not publish its findings following these visits, calling into question the transparency of NIHR’s operations.
The SCA also expressed its concerns with regards to the independence of the NIHR’s members and their appointment process. The current system is regulated by Royal Decree, which allows only select civil society organizations to contribute their opinion when members of the Council of Commissioners of the NIHR are appointed. The SCA questioned the transparency of this process, reminding the institute that the process is intended to be one that “promotes merit-based selection and ensures pluralism,” and confirms “independence of, and public confidence in, the senior leadership of a [national human rights institution].” As a result, the selective process of appointment fails to meet these basic standards.
In theory, the establishment of the NIHR was seen as a positive step for human rights in Bahrain. However, in practice, the institute has not fulfilled this agenda, instead aiding in masking the pervasive and ongoing violations of human rights in the country. The NIHR lacks financial, technical, and logistical independence, and has whitewashed violations committed by authorities, contributing further to an already pervasive culture of impunity. As the evidence shows, the mechanisms for responding to complaints of human rights violations lack effectiveness, and victims remain unheard and uncompensated. Due to the lack of investigations conducted by the NIHR, the majority of submissions result in rejection, despite credible evidence to the contrary. Moreover, even in circumstances when the NIHR concluded that human rights violations may have occurred, there was no timely follow-up, and the identified perpetrators were able to continue without reprisal. As a result, the NIHR fails to abide by the Paris Principles, demonstrating its dire need for improvement.