More than half of the population of Bahrain participated in a peaceful pro-democracy movement in 2011. These protests challenged structural inequalities, corruption, repression of fundamental human rights, religious sectarianization, and a lack of democratic political representation in Bahrain. The Government of Bahrain brutally repressed the protesters and since 2011, the government has further intensified its control of civil society by interrogating, arresting, and arbitrarily imprisoning thousands of human rights defenders, journalists, political opposition leaders, and religious figures.
The Bahraini authorities frequently utilise the broad 2017 Counterterrorism Law and the Press Law, amended in 2019. These laws effectively criminalize the right to freedom of speech and assembly by both prominent and lesser-known peaceful activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and opponents of the government. Furthermore, torture is systematically employed by Bahraini officials in government buildings, including prisons and detention centers, as a method to force confessions which are later used against the defendants in the trial. It is safe to say that a culture of impunity remains embedded in the Bahraini system and everyday human rights violations and the censoring of dissenting voices are now the norms.
Two human rights activists, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Sheikh Mohammed Habib Al-Miqdad have been serving prison sentences since 2011. Both activists hold dual citizenship with the Member States of the European Union: Al-Khawaja is a dual Bahraini-Danish national, while Al-Miqdad is Bahraini-Swedish. Despite their ties with the EU, they continue to be held in conditions that fall far below the minimum international standards, known as the ‘Mandela Rules’.
Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Sheikh Al-Miqdad are just two of the numerous individuals whose courage has been met with abuse and life imprisonment. The EU has failed to observe its TEU Article 3(5) obligation, which specifies that “in its relations with the wider world, the Union shall uphold and promote its values and interests and contribute to the protection of its citizens.”
Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a prominent human rights defender and co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). He was granted political asylum by Denmark in the early 2000s, a particularly brutal period for human rights defenders in Bahrain.
After spending several years in Denmark with his family, Mr Al-Khawaja returned to Bahrain after the general amnesty for exiled individuals. His desire to engage in the promotion of human rights and greater political representation remained strong. Between 2005 and 2009, he was arrested several times for taking part in peaceful anti-government protests. These violations of his civil liberties were not investigated by Bahraini authorities, despite calls from UN bodies and international NGOs.
During 2011, Mr Al-Khawaja led the peaceful pro-democracy protests across the country and organized peaceful awareness-raising activities for protesters. Central to the campaign were criticisms of the regime’s crackdown, and a demand for accountability of issues such as torture and corruption by security forces. As a result, Mr Al-Khawaja was violently removed from his home and tortured by security services. These instances of extreme torture left him unconscious.
Following several weeks of detention, during which he continued to be tortured, Mr Al-Khawaja was put on trial before the National Safety Court with 20 other Bahraini individuals. This trial was widely found to be unfair and recognized as incompatible with the universal standards for a fair trial, thereby violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). He was sentenced to life in prison under broad legislation and trumped-up charges including, “participating in terrorism to overthrow the government.” This was a reprisal for his peaceful role in the uprisings. Upon the announcement of his life sentence, Mr Al-Khawaja raised his fist and shouted, “We shall continue on the path of peaceful resistance!” as he was hustled out of the courtroom.
In Jau Prison, Mr Al-Khawaja has suffered repeated physical, sexual, and psychological torture, as well as lack of access to critical medical assistance. Furthermore, Bahraini prison authorities regularly deny political prisoners access to basic hygiene needs like showering, bathroom use, and change of clothes.
In 2015, Mr Al-Khawaja started a series of hunger strikes to call international attention to the dire and inhumane conditions of detention in Jau Prison, especially in the building occupied by prisoners of conscience. Because of the repeated abuses and torture which he has experienced, and his lack of access to proper medical assistance, his health condition has shown an alarming deterioration. At the time, the hunger strikes further weakened him.
In the past months, reliable testimonies have confirmed that the COVID-19 virus has spread throughout Bahraini prisons, nearing a total of at least 100 confirmed cases. Since Mr Al-Khawaja is already an at-risk individual, the risk of deterioration of his health conditions is concerning.
Human rights organizations and European nations have made repeated efforts to call for his unconditional release. Nevertheless, Bahraini authorities refuse to free him. After ten years of unjust imprisonment, this prominent human rights defender and Bahraini-Danish national must be freed.
Sheikh Mohammed Habib Al-Miqdad
Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Miqdad, a prominent human rights defender and religious leader, is another one of thousands of prisoners detained for practicing their fundamental human rights. In April 2011 he was detained, and he was later sentenced to 74 years in prison, which he has been serving in Jau Prison. As aforementioned, he holds Bahraini-Swedish dual nationality.
Sheikh Al-Miqdad has been a target of government persecution for many years. In August 2010, he was forcibly disappeared for 60 days due to his oppositional activities. During these two months, Sheikh Al-Miqdad was not given access to legal representation and was prevented from contacting his family. He was subjected to a range of torture practices, including beatings and electrocutions, sexual abuse, being hung by his ankles, being forced to stand for long periods of time, and being deprived of sleep and water. In a later trial when he presented evidence of his experiences of torture––including testimony as to the involvement of members of the Royal Family––the Court asked him to remain silent and “respect the Court.”
Sheikh Al-Miqdad was eventually released, but after his involvement in the 2011 protests, he was arrested again by National Security officers. During his arrest, officers dragged Al-Miqdad from the house where he was hiding, stripped him naked, and severely beat him. He was then transferred to a prison, where he was subjected to further methods of physical and psychological torture. The effects of Al-Miqdad’s multiple abuses and instances of torture have compounded and resulted in serious and lasting injuries. Al-Miqdad now has difficulty moving and ingesting food.
Moreover, Al-Miqdad had previously been diagnosed with cancer and requires a surgical operation. Despite his need for special health care, the authorities have continuously refused to grant him access to proper medical treatment. This is in direct contravention of human rights conventions on the treatment of prisoners. The recent spread of COVID-19 further exacerbates Al-Miqdad’s vulnerabilities and has placed his life at risk.
The response of the Bahraini authorities to the COVID-19 pandemic has shed additional light on the targeted use of detention and torture as a means of silencing human rights defenders, journalists, political activists, and other dissenting voices. Although Bahraini’s Ministry of Interior (MoI) decided to release 1,486 detainees for humanitarian reasons, fewer than 20 percent of these individuals were political prisoners. The majority of participants from the 2011 Uprising remain behind the walls of Jau Prison.
The Royal Pardon excluded all prominent opposition leaders and human rights defenders, a fact that was condemned in a joint letter by 21 NGOs, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), and Human Rights Watch. After several months of arbitrary detention, the authorities conditionally released Nabeel Rajab, a human rights activist and opposition leader. However, Mr Rajab’s release comes at a high price: he remains under government surveillance, has been issued a travel ban, cannot spend time with individuals or in places associated with his human rights work and was forced to sign a confidentiality agreement.
Allowing impunity in a small country such as Bahrain sends a message to more powerful States that violations of their legal obligations under international human rights law will remain unpunished. This undermines the international legal system and the many norms and values to which it aspires. We must see action taken in Bahrain.