On 19 July 2022, the United Nation’s (UN) held the 135th Session of the Human Rights Committee (CCPR). During this session the Special Rapporteur on Follow-up to Concluding Observations, Vasilka Sancin, offered a progress report on Bahrain’s efforts to address those concerns and recommendations raised by the HRC as part of its 3516th meeting in July 2018. The three selected priority recommendations under consideration at this session were Paragraph 14, which pertains to military courts; Paragraph 32, which concerns the death penalty; and Paragraph 54, which discusses freedom of expression. The Special Rapporteur detailed, with conclusive evidence, the myriad of ways in which the Bahraini government has not only failed to implement these priority recommendations, but has actively taken efforts to further dismantle the kingdom’s civil society through the systematic use of abuse to silence activists, journalists, religious officials, and political leaders, by means of arbitrary arrest and detention; the pervasive use of torture to extract false confessions; extrajudicial killings; and degrading and inhuman prison conditions.
The Committee found that several years after the April 2017 amendment to the constitution, the Government of Bahrain has not engaged in any formal review process concerning the consequences of further incorporating the military into civilian governance, nor has Bahrain taken any actions to ensure that military courts are prevented from exercising jurisdiction over civilians. During the 2nd and 3rd UPR cycle, Bahrain welcomed several recommendations related to due process rights and military courts. However, not only has the Bahraini government failed to uphold its commitment to implementing the UPR recommendations, but it has also taken actions which further aggravate lack of transparency and judicial irregularities which characterize the Bahraini criminal justice system. In February 2018, Bahrain’s Military High Court of Appeal rejected the appeal of three civilians and one soldier convicted in a mass trial: Mubarak Adel Mubarak Mahanna, Sayed Fadhel Abbas Hassan Radhi, Sayed Alawi Husain, and Mohammed Abdulhasan Al Mutagahwi. The King subsequently commuted the death penalties in these cases to life imprisonment. While this reduced sentence is noted, the King’s decision to ratify the ruling of the military court signals an acceptance of the military court trial and refusal to acknowledge allegations of severe mistreatment at the hands of Bahraini authorities. The military courts have also stripped defendants of their citizenship as part of their sentence, rendering them stateless.
By normalizing the emergency measure of National Safety Court (NSC) trials and empowering the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) to try civilians under an overly broad mandate related to concerns of “national security”, Bahrain reveals its lack of commitment to accepted international recommendations. Despite international pressure to nullify the rulings, individuals sentenced in military courts continue to serve long sentences in prison. Although there has not been news of civilians tried in military courts since 2018, the government has yet to offer an indication that it is actively working toward repealing the constitutional amendment allowing these proceedings and ensuring that any future trial is conducted in a civilian court adherent to international standards.
Although the Bahraini government has attempted to justify the 2017 amendment as being necessary to combat terrorism, the Committee gave Bahrain a grade C, which designates that the State party’s response is not satisfactory and has not demonstrated a reasonable commitment to implement the recommendation.
Special Rapporteur Sancin noted with deep concern Bahrain’s escalation of the death penalty in recent years, despite consistent urging by the HRC and various human rights groups for the government to reinstate the moratorium on the death penalty and work towards the abolishment of capital punishment. There are currently 26 people on death row in Bahrain, all of whom are at imminent risk of execution having already exhausted their appeals process. 12 of the 26 individuals were convicted on “terrorism-related” offenses, with all of these cases being connected to the political opposition that has been effectively banned in Bahrain. Of those individuals facing imminent execution, 12% received a death penalty sentence for non-lethal drug offenses, and of those sentenced to death for “terrorism-related” offenses, 29% were convicted of charges related to non-lethal offenses.
In stark contrast to the rhetoric of public officials championing purported internal reforms, death sentences in Bahrain have risen over 600% in the last decade, and, correspondingly, execution rates have risen 20% during the same period. Despite the comments of Bahraini authorities that suggest the use of the death penalty is “rare”, Bahrain’s execution rate per capita remains exceptionally high, with a documented execution rate per capita in 2019 that was nearly two-thirds that of Iran. The number of people on death row facing imminent execution has increased by over 2,500% over the last decade; at the end of 2010 only one person faced imminent execution, while at least 26 individuals currently face this risk. In direct violation of the Article 6 of the ICCPR, Bahrain has imposed the death penalty for offenses other than the “most serious crimes”, including non-lethal drug offenses.
The Committee specifically noted the cases of Mohamed Ramadan and Husain Ali Moosa, two Bahraini citizens who were sentenced to death in 2014 for their alleged involvement in the Al-Dair bombing in February of that year. Both men were arrested by the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) without a warrant, and while in custody, they were tortured and coerced into confessing to committing the bombing. Ramadan and Moosa were denied legal counsel and were convicted following an unfair trial on 29 Dec 2014. On 22 October 2018, the Court of Cassation overturned their verdict, on the basis of medical reports which corroborated allegations of torture. Despite once again raising complaints during their retrial that they were falsely accused, tortured, and coerced to confess to a crime they did not commit, their death sentences were reimposed by the Court of Appeal and upheld by the Court of Cassation in July 2020. Also acknowledged by the Committee were the cases of Maher al-Khabbaz and Salman Isa Salman. Maher al-Khabbaz was arrested in 2013 by officers in plain clothing and forcibly disappeared for over a week. During this time he was tortured and coerced into confessing to the murder of a police officer. Al-Khabbaz was forced to sign a written statement confessing his guilt, despite being unaware of the contents due to his illiteracy. His complaints of torture were submitted to the Special Investigation’s Unit, which found no evidence of torture. Notably, the SIU did not meet with Al-Khabbaz, nor did it allow for an independent medical examination.
On 29 January 2018, following an appeals process, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation confirmed his death sentence. 24. Salman Isa Salman was arrested without a warrant in 2014 and brought to the CID where he was subjected to torture to coerce a confession; throughout his detention and interrogation he was further deprived of his rights due to his being denied access to legal counsel. The Court of Cassation upheld Salman’s death sentence on 4 June 2018. Both al-Khabbaz and Salman have exhausted all legal remedies and are at an imminent risk of execution. Given the numerous judicial irregularities and reports of fair trial violations in these cases, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution, the SR on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; and the SR on torture have all publicly expressed concern.
Given the State party’s reluctance to offer evidence which would suggest that the Bahraini government is working towards the reinstatement of the moratorium on the death penalty, the Committee assigned Bahrain a grade C; notably, expert member of the HRC, Marcia Vaune Kran, proposed assigning Bahrain a grade E, which designates a State party that has taken actions in direct contravention of the recommendation.
Freedom of Expression
The findings of the Committee indicate that the Bahraini government has shown a distinct unwillingness to take the necessary actions to decriminalize freedom of speech and expression within the kingdom. Over the last two years, the Government of Bahrain has taken increased measures to criminalize dissent expressed on social media by imposing strict censorship on online content. In 2019, the government amended the Press and Media Law of 2002 to introduce the concept of social media misuse and tougher penalties. Social media misuse now includes anything which the government considers “to threaten community peace, cause division, and weaken national unity.” For example, in May 2019, Bahraini authorities sent a text warning to every registered number under its territory not to follow accounts it had defined as “pro-terrorist, biased or inciting hatred.”
The most recent amendment (April 2021) to the Press and Publication law extended government jurisdiction to include internet and digital content. Electronic media outlets are required to receive approval to operate from a monarchy-appointed government ministry. Alongside this amendment, the banning of the country’s last independent media outlet, Al Wasat, in 2017 and the refusal to allow entry of foreign journalists into the country has eliminated the existence of a print or digital media, independent from the monarchy and free to use media platforms as a tool of accountability for the country’s leaders.
In August 2021, independent media discovered that nine Bahraini activists were targeted in 2020 and 2021 by spyware purchased by the Bahraini government. The victims of this government violation included three activists – one of whom is a journalist -, four members of political opposition groups, and two exiled Bahraini dissidents. As a result of these different forms of targeted harassment, activists and journalists practice self-censorship to protect themselves from government reprisal.
On the basis of this and related information, the Committee assigned Bahrain a grade E for the absence of measures toward decriminalizing blasphemy and criticism of public officials, and a grade C relating to the government’s failure to protect activists and journalists and release those individuals who have been imprisoned on offenses related solely to the exercising of their freedom of expression.
In accordance with the documentation of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADRB), the findings of the HRC and the comments of the Special Rapporteur on Follow-up to Concluding Observations at the recent 135th Session offer a clear portrayal of the deteriorating human rights situation in Bahrain. In assessing Bahrain’s progress on implementing the three Priority recommendations concerning military courts, the death penalty, and freedom of expression, the Committee assigned Bahrain grades C and E, with E being the lowest possible distinction.
The Bahraini government has continued to use excessively ambiguous amendments to the constitution and Military Judiciary Law to try civilians in military court, in direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards pertaining to fair trials and due process. Additionally, the country’s decision to lift the moratorium on the death penalty in January 2017 has led to an increase in the number of death sentences, despite the concerning prevalence of torture and frequent reports that confessions were made under duress. Alarmingly, the death penalty continues to be imposed in cases where such punishment is not commensurate with the offense. Further, the Bahraini regime continues to repress civil society and restrict activities related to the fundamental freedom of expression. Security forces regularly summon activists, use violence and intimidation to extract false confessions, extrajudicially punish detainees, and suppress dissent. Human rights defenders and political opposition activists continue to be imprisoned for offenses that are directly related to their freedom of expression.