On August 8, 2021, two days before the beginning of the month of Muharram, the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments announced the implementation of precautionary health measures for the Ashura season. These measures were supposedly in accordance with recommendations issued by the government’s medical team in order to combat COVID-19. However, the authorities have instead utilized these measures to whitewash restrictions on religious freedoms in the country, alongside concealing the systematic violation of various other human rights.
Restrictions on Funeral Processions
One of the most prominent health recommendations was the division of funerals into three levels: the green level, where the number of participants permitted into the ceremony is limited to 60% capacity; the yellow level, where the number of participants is limited to 30% capacity; and the orange level, where the number of participants is limited to 30 people. Drinks and food are forbidden at all levels. The Bahraini authorities enforced the orange level on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram (August 19 and 20, 2021), where ceremonies usually reach hundreds of participants. Instead, attendance was limited to 30 people during these two days, with mourning processions only allowed to take place around the funeral location. In protest against these measures, more than 60 funerals issued a statement calling on the national team to review these restrictive measures. Particular attention was paid to the restriction of the funeral procession to the vicinity of the ceremony location, as this would lead to serious overcrowding outside of the building. In contrast, allowing participants to space themselves along the road would be a more effective solution in respecting the country’s health measures.
Immediately following the 10th day of Muharram, the authorities reapplied the green level, allowing funeral capacities to open at 60% capacity and without any restrictions on processions. Ironically, at the same time that the Bahraini authorities were restricting Ashura rituals, the national basketball finals were underway. The Bahraini media broadcasted pictures and videos revealing large numbers of crowds in attendance at the basketball games, without adopting any of the measures recommended by the government’s health team. Moreover, the son of King Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa appeared in the media celebrating the Indian “Onam” festival with the Indian diaspora in Bahrain, practicing their own rituals amongst large crowds of people in the absence of minimum precautionary health measures. The use of precautionary health measures as a pretense to limiting religious freedoms and imposing arbitrary restrictions, portrays the Bahraini government’s continued attempts to suppress religious freedom in the country.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s depiction of Bahrain as “an oasis of peace and a beacon of religious freedoms” is directly refuted by these attacks on the participation in Ashura celebrations, which have been consistently documented by Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). The Ministry of Interior has congratulated its departments for the success of the Ashura season, claiming that it is an embodiment of “community partnership” in Bahrain. However, these statements simultaneously coincided with a series of summons, arrests, and threats to eulogy reciters, clerics and funeral directors who were accused of violating the restrictive ‘precautionary’ measures imposed during Muharram.
Removal of Flags and Banners
As Ashura commerrations came to an end, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa attempted to whitewash the restriction of Ashura rituals by stating that Bahrain represents a “humanitarian model in the exercise of religious freedoms and respect for religious pluralism.” However, such respect for religious freedom is in complete contradiction to the actions of the government during the month of Muharram. Most notably, the authorities have continued the removal of black flags that Shiites raise every year to express grief over the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad Mohamed. The Ministry of Interior made numerous phone calls to Shia citizens demanding they remove the black flags from their roofs, and asking them to sign a pledge that they will never raise them again. Following the phone calls, security services began photographing the homes that continued to raise their flags, and launched a targeted mission to confiscate all flags and banners from the towns of Al-Musalla, Al-Bilad Al-Qadeem, and Hamad Town.
ADHRB has also documented the arrest of a group of young men in Al Duraz, who were arrested and transferred to the Budaiya Police Station after raising black banners and flags. In protest of these systematic violations of religious freedoms, a number of Bahraini citizens have taken to the streets in order to demonstrate. Groups have demanded respect for their religious rites during Muharram and an end to the sectarian targeting of Shia-related practices. Al Duraz, Al-Malikiyah, Al-Bilad Al-Qadeem and Damistan all saw manifestations in retaliation for the authorities’ actions, after armoured military vehicles removed all banners from houses, squares, and streets in the neighborhood. This was accompanied by the circulation of pictures and videos portraying masked men removing black flags off balconies and roofs of houses without the permission of the owners. Moreover, the administration of the Jableh Habashi funeral was forced to remove a banner which included a famous quote for Imam Husain.
Intensification of the Security Presence
At the beginning of the month of Muharram, the governor of the capital, Hisham bin Abdul Rahman Al Khalifa, visited a number of the capital’s funeral homes to meet with their directors and administrators. Following these meetings, the governor praised the “coordination and cooperation shown by the directors of the funerals and processions with the competent authorities” in order to “ensure the success of the Ashura season.” However, this sentiment was not reflected in the actions of the security services, who dealt with Ashura ceremonies as serious security incidents. Instead, security forces conducted a targeted campaign to suppress religious freedoms in ways unrelated to the minimization of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some areas, mourners were stopped on the streets and required to present identification, with some security forces reportedly photographing demonstrators and attempting to provoke violent responses. It was also reported that police patrols in the village of A’ali were wiretapping homes in an attempt to punish families who held funerals. Videos of drones utilized by authorities to photograph mourners were also published online.
At a funeral in Salmabad on the sixth day of Muharram, security services prevented mourners coming from outside the region from entering the town. Their license plate numbers were registered, and their IDs were photographed. This scene is not different to that of the Jableh Habashi funeral, where forces affiliated with the Ministry of Interior set up a checkpoint near the funeral under the pretense of monitoring the application of the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The presence of security forces affiliated with the Ministry of Interior were also documented in Sanabis, Sitra, Samaheej, Juffair, Al-Bilad Al-Qadeem, Abu Saiba and Al-Shakhoura.
Restrictions in Prisons
The repression of religious freedoms during Ashura has also been witnessed in Bahraini prisons. Only a few days prior to the commencement of Muharram, political prisoner Sheikh Zuhair Ashour and his cell mates were prohibited from making phone calls for a renewable period of one week. They were also prevented from going outside. Prison authorities announced that their intention for such punishment was to prevent them from carrying out Ashura ceremonies.
On the first day of Muharram, alongside the commencement of the Ashura ceremonies, ADHRB received reports that a number of prisoners from former Building 20 (currently Building 5), protested outside their cells after they were prevented from performing Ashura rituals. They were threatened with force if they did not reenter their cells, and have since been denied all rights to phone calls and communication. The prison administration also prevented the prisoners of Ward 2, whose numbers reach 118, from carrying out Ashura rituals under the pretense that they had not been vaccinated against COVID-19. In addition to this, the prison administration has attempted to force prisoners to receive expired Pfizer vaccines, ignoring requests by some prisoners to receive the Russian vaccine.
Series of Summonses and Arrests
On August 19, 2021, state media outlets published photos of Ashura celebrations, referring to the Ministry of Interior’s “outstanding presence and excellent professional performance in ensuring the security and the success of the Ashura season.” However, media coverage failed to mention the series of summonses that were issued in the first ten days of Muharram, including on charges of “non-adherence to COVID-19 measures” and other charges related to the conduction of Ashura rituals. These summons and arrests were recorded and included:
- Multiple summons sent to citizens from across different regions with regards to them raising their black flags on the roofs of their homes;
- Eulogy reciters Mahmoud Al-Qallaf and Saleh Sahwan were summoned to Al Hoora Police Station, and released after paying a fine of 200 Bahraini Dinars;
- Various regions witnessed large numbers of summons and fines for charges under the pretense of illegal assembly which did not adhere to preventative COVID-19 measures;
- Numerous citizens were summoned to Police Station Roundabout 17 for investigation without being provided reasons for doing so;
- Seven mourners and two eulogy reciters were arrested in Sanabis, alongside dozens of others who were summoned for raising the Ashura banners. They were also asked to remove the flags and hand them over to police;
- Ali Mansour and Muhammad Deif were arrested and interrogated at the Al Hoora Police Station;
- The Bahraini Ministry of Interior summoned Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Mulla Atiya Al-Jamri and Sheikh Mohamed Al-Riyash for interrogation at the Muharraq Police Station.
- Mustafa Al-Hawri was summoned to Police Station Roundabout 17 in Hamad Town. He was arrested and detained for two days on charges of participating in an unauthorized funeral in the Hamad Town area, and was forced to pay a fine of 200 Bahraini Dinars.
- Eulogy reciter Jaafar Al-Dirazi was arrested after being summoned to the Budaiya Police Station, but was later released.
- Director of the Imam Ali funeral, Haj Fadel Hammad, was summoned and arrested in the village of Al-Dair; but was later released;
- The administration of Al-Maqsha funeral was summoned to the Budaiya Police Station, where the authorities threatened to take measures against them if they let mourning processions take place;
- The director of the Al-Dair procession, Faisal Al-Mo’men, was arrested after he was summoned;
- Eulogy reciter Sayed Ahmed Al-Alawi was summoned to the Samaheej Police Station due to his participation in the procession of Zanjil in Al-Dair;
- Summons were sent to preachers Al-Husaini, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Khadran, and Sheikh Hani Al-Banna, but the reason behind them were unclear;
- Eulogy reciter Mahdi Sahwan was summoned to Police Station Roundabout 17, where he was detained for hours and interrogated in connection with the publication of a recording of an Ashura poem that he recited in one of the funerals. He was later released.
Attempts by Bahraini authorities to whitewash their violations, whilst simultaneously suppressing religious freedoms during the month of Muharram, has not succeeded. Whilst Bahrain attempts to portray a level of tolerance for religious freedoms, the repression of Ashura mourners, confiscation of black flags and banners, as well as series of sectarian arrests reveal a very different story to the one depicted in state-owned media. The violation of fundamental freedoms and religious rites is not an isolated occurrence in Bahrain. However, the pandemic has offered an opportunity for the authorities to continue such repression under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19. This has dangerously extended the powers given to state security forces, and has seen the systematic denial of religious freedom in the country. Despite attempts to conceal such violations and promote their own rhetoric, ADHRB has documented numerous evidence to the contrary, proving the continued existence of human rights violations within the Kingdom.