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CIHRS hosts panel discussion, film screening on free expression crisis

(CIHRS/IFEX) - 15 September 2011 - Yesterday, 14 September 2011, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), in cooperation with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), held a side event during the proceedings of the 18th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva about the situation in Bahrain.

The event included the screening of the Al-Jazeera documentary "Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark", a 51-minute film that captures state violations against protesters and dissenting voices since the mass protests began on 14 February in Bahrain. Violations documented in the film include extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, targeting of hospitals and medical personnel, and other punitive measures taken against citizens who participated in the protests at Pearl Roundabout.

The screening was followed by a panel discussion. Maryam Al-Khawaja, head of the BCHR's foreign relations section, highlighted the strong need for international attention on the human rights situation in Bahrain, which until now has been conspicuously absent. Al-Khawaja stressed the importance of individual statements by member states condemning the ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain as an imperative step towards pressuring Bahraini authorities to curtail the crackdown.

Additionally, she gave an overview of the current human rights situation in the country, which included the continuation of the military trials of civilians connected to protests, authorities obtaining confessions through duress, and allegations of torture and maltreatment inside prison facilities, which have resulted in several of the detainees declaring hunger strikes and thus exacerbating their vulnerable situation. In addition, Bahraini students and workers continue to be targeted for their involvement in the protests through dismissals from their studies and jobs.

Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East region, spoke of the strong resistance shown by officials to allowing foreign observers - whether representatives of human rights organizations or foreign media - into the country. Stork stated that what is happening in Bahrain is a policy of collective punishment of all Bahrainis who have shown support for the pro-democracy movement, citing the examples of the targeting of medics who assisted the injured protesters and the youth who expressed their support through Twitter.

Regarding his vision for the future, Stork expressed optimism that the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, headed by international lawyer Professor Cherif Bassiouni, would be balanced and that if genuine reforms were implemented and the Commission's recommendations put into practice, it would represent a step forward in Bahrain's human rights record.

Stork further stressed that the HRC has an important role to play given the deadlock that has characterized the Council's reaction to Bahrain, and he called on the Council to send a mission to conduct a field visit to Bahrain.

In response to questions from the floor concerning the status of women during protests, Al-Khawaja described attacks against protesters as non-discriminatory, stating that there was a considerably strong presence of women in the protests. The EU delegations cited Ms. Catherine Ashton's - High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy - statement welcoming the recent release of medical workers who were brought before military courts and asked about the current status of national human rights organizations in the country. Al-Khawaja responded that they have witnessed little improvement and remain in danger of facing an even harsher crackdown in the near future.

In response to another question relating to allegations that protests in Bahrain had taken on a violent nature, Stork stated that HRW observers on the ground documented that protests were peaceful and non-violent.

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