Biden administration says Bahrain is committing serious rights abuses, Action must follow

On 12 April 2022, the U.S. State Department released its 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) acknowledges that the country report for Bahrain is an improvement on both the breadth and probity of previous publications and finds the recent report to be largely accurate in its recognition of serious human rights flaws in the country that are instigated by the Bahraini monarchy and its government. While ADHRB finds the report to be semi-comprehensive and mostly in keeping with ADHRB’s reporting and documentation and that of other credible human rights organizations, we urge the State Department to remain cognizant of the systemic nature of Bahrain’s human rights abuses and remind this administration that rhetoric is no substitute for policy.

In the report, the State Department called attention to numerous human rights violations and restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including “torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; [and] arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy”. The report addresses the ongoing attempts of the Bahraini government to silence voices of dissent and notes with concern the “serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations”. Additionally, the report highlights Bahrain’s intensification of restrictions on freedom of movement, including revocation of citizenship. Of particular importance, given the upcoming parliamentary elections in November, the report emphasizes that the Government of Bahrain continues its efforts to dismantle civil society and suppress democratic reforms through “serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation”.

The report explicitly acknowledges the issue of political prisoners, specifically with regards to degrading treatment within Bahraini prisons. Although the report refrains from acknowledging the true extent of the issue, the direct mention of political prisoners and detainees in Section 1.e offers a pronounced refutation of the claims made by the Bahraini delegation at the recent 71st Session of the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), wherein the government continued its public denial of the existence of political prisoners within the kingdom. The report mentioned several prominent human rights defenders and political opposition figures who remain imprisoned on charges stemming from their peaceful activism, including Abduljalil al-Singace, Hasan Mushaima, Abdulhadi al-Khawajam, Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, and Abdulwahab Husain.

The report also emphasizes that the Bahraini government has yet to fully implement recommendations from the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, particularly as it concerns systemic discrimination based on sect and the integration of the country’s Shia majority into both the public and private sector. In referencing the application of citizenship laws and the broader issue of Shia representation within the security forces, the report notes that “the government allowed foreign Sunni employees of the security services who had lived in the country fewer than 15 years to apply for citizenship, while there were reports authorities had not granted citizenship to Arab Shia residents who had resided in the country for more than 15 years,”. Moreover, the report speaks to Bahrain’s continued practice of targeting children by noting the reports of human rights organizations and expressing concern that “authorities subjected children, sometimes younger than age 15, to various forms of mistreatment, including beating, slapping, kicking, and verbal abuse”.

In addition to political prisoners and the targeting of vulnerable groups, the report acknowledges, admittedly indirectly, the fundamental inadequacies within the Bahraini political and judicial systems. For example, the report notes that the “parliament consists of an upper house appointed by the king” and that “[R]epresentatives from two formerly prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, could not participate in the elections due to their court-ordered dissolution in 2016 and 2017, respectively”. Relatedly, the report mentions that the “Special Investigation Unit (SIU), an element of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) that reports to the king-appointed attorney general, is responsible for investigating security force misconduct, including complaints against police”. Though the report avoids any determinative conclusions based on these and numerous other indications of an autocratic governance structure, the findings of the State Department serve to confirm an alarming reality: Bahrain’s widespread human rights violations are facilitated by structural failures of a monarchy that resists democratic reforms and relies on a lack of independence and transparency within government mechanisms to preclude the accountability necessary for change.

It is worth reiterating that the 2021 State Department Report is a more accurate reflection of the deteriorating human rights situation than preceding reports, but it faces some of the same problems. While the acknowledgment by the State Department of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Bahraini monarchy is extremely important, recognition of a problem is only the first step; attaching action to our values and to the words of President Biden and Secretary Blinken of their “commitment to keep human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy” is the second step. There is a clear connection between the government’s repression of its citizens and the risk of increased instability in Bahrain. The consequences of the growing instability within a strategic U.S partner will only harm U.S. interests in the region. The sources of this instability are identified in the 2021 Country Report. The remedy to these stability underminers – these human rights abuses – are very simply human rights protections and political reconciliation.

Accordingly, ADHRB recommends the following next steps:

• That the State Department satisfy the requirement placed upon it by Congress and the President to issue a report on what it is doing to pressure the Bahraini monarchy to release its political prisoners.

• That the State Department push the monarchy to initiate a political reconciliation with the pro-democracy and human rights activists it has repressed.

• That Congress pursue a set of Magnitsky Act sanctions against specific individuals in the Bahraini government who have personally committed human rights violations.

• Conditionally suspend assistance to abusive security institutions like the Bahraini NSA and the MOI until genuine reforms are enacted and results can be confirmed by independent bodies.

• That the Bahraini monarchy restore a free and independent press.

• That the Bahraini monarchy lift its ban on opposition groups.

• That the Bahraini monarchy lift its restrictions on the right to free expression and assembly.