At an event on 28 September 2022 during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 51st session, human rights NGOs called for UN member states to help secure the immediate release of detained human rights defenders and other prisoners of conscience in Bahrain. The event was organised by Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR).
Participants noted that if Bahrain’s leaders are serious about reform, they should take steps to comply with the recommendations of Bahrain’s previous Universal Periodic Review (UPR) ahead of its next review in November 2022, and ahead of November 2022 elections. These provide two key advocacy opportunities.
The Moderator, Saloua Boukaouit of BCHR, opened the event by noting there has been “no significant progress in releasing political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in the 11 years since the uprising.”
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) said that human rights defenders face poor treatment and torture in prison, including human rights defenders like Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, on liquids only hunger strike in prison since July 2021 or Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja – both of whom are serving a life sentence for their peaceful activities. He talked about denial of medical treatment to prominent prisoners of conscience which he called “an extremely distressing situation.”
He further highlighted reprisals against human rights defenders and their families – including himself – as well as woman human rights defender Ebtisam Al-Saegh, who was subjected to severe torture following participation with the UNHRC in Geneva in March 2017. Three of Awadaei’s family were imprisoned and one still faces 11 years in prison.
Joey Shea of Human Rights Watch called on UN member states to publicly condemn human rights violations in Bahrain and advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience, particularly those who have “lost a decade of their lives.” She also brought attention to the fact that 58 people were arrested for their online activity from 2020-2021 in Bahrain.
Sima Watling of Amnesty International also called on Bahrain to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry from 11 years ago. Immediately releasing prisoners of conscience would make their reform efforts more credible. At the very least, she said Dr. Al-Singace should be given his research so he would end his hunger strike and Al-Khawaja should be given proper medical treatment, adding, “We owe it to these courageous people not to be silent. We are a glimmer of hope.”
Joshua Colangelo, a lawyer and GCHR Advisory Board member, says some prisoners of conscience were sentenced to life in prison simply for peacefully calling for democracy and leading demonstrations in Bahrain, which violates international law. “It’s critical to remember that these people were not imprisoned for doing anything remotely criminal,” he said, adding “we’ll continue to fight for their release.”
Sara Brandt, Advocacy Lead at the #FreeAlKhawaja campaign, remarked that “solidarity and support from all over the world shows the inspiration and impact Abdulhadi has had on everyone’s life.” Many people have called for his release, including UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor. She echoed calls for the Danish government to continue to apply direct public pressure on the Bahraini government to free Al-Khawaja, a Danish-Bahraini citizen who is co-founder of BCHR and GCHR and winner of the 2022 Martin Ennals Award. Follow @FreeAlKhawaja
ADHRB, BCHR, GCHR and FIDH made a joint submission ahead of Bahrain’s next UPR in November 2022. The joint UPR submission notes particularly that, “The Bahraini government has claimed there are no political prisoners in Bahrain, alleging that all those imprisoned have committed criminal or terrorist offenses. This disregards statements issued by international human rights organisations and the OHCHR regarding several Bahraini activists and opposition figures who have been detained for their non-violent activities, such as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, Hasan Mushaima, and Naji Fateel.”
During the UPR Pre-Sessions in August 2022, GCHR highlighted Bahrain’s failure to promote, enhance and protect the basic rights of women and its clear attempts to break down the WHRDs’ and feminist movements in the country.
During Bahrain’s last UPR, the state supported four recommendations to ensure protection of human rights defenders one of which specified special protection for women human rights defenders. Many were arrested without warrants and subjected to physical, psychological and sexual assaults, verbally abused, physically beaten, and threatened with rape and death during arrest, interrogation and detention. They faced unfair trials, were subjected to punitive measures, including lack of access to medical care, and continuous intimidation.
Human rights defenders are subjected to various forms of reprisals including revoking of nationality, travel ban or forced exile. Bahrain’s government invested millions in spyware to target human rights defenders, and hacked Al-Saegh’s iPhone at least eight times in 2019 with Pegasus spyware, which affected her well-being and violated her right to privacy.