(ANHRI/Index on Censorship/WiPC/IFEX) - 30 November 2011 - All human rights defenders and those in detention as a result of the National Safety laws enacted in Bahrain should be freed immediately, said a delegation of six international rights organisations visiting the country this past week to investigate freedom of expression. In the wake of the report from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) on 23 November, the delegation calls for the King of Bahrain to implement the Commission's recommendations to hold accountable all those responsible for past violations, and to take action immediately to prevent further abuses such as torture of detainees.
The international mission met with numerous human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, students, medics and other members of civil society, and provided solidarity and moral support to such individuals, as well as the families of those detained for upholding their right to free expression. Human rights defenders detailed ongoing violations of free speech, freedom of assembly and a continuation of the "culture of impunity" cited in the BICI report. The BICI report specifically recommends that those sentenced for peaceful, political expression must have their sentences commuted or charges dropped. As one blogger noted, "While censorship has been a fact of life in Bahrain for a long time, the criminalisation of all forms of speech - even 'liking' something on Facebook - is a new low."
At a meeting with Dr. Fatima Al-Balooshi, Minister for Human Rights and Social Development, the delegation stressed the importance of unfettered access to Bahrain for international NGOs and media as a means of ensuring transparency and accountability. The delegation is also concerned about government officials who seem to believe that the BICI report closes the door on the past, which could prevent perpetrators of torture and other abuses from being held accountable.
The delegation also remains concerned about the reality on the ground in Bahrain, as two individuals were killed by security forces while the delegation was in-country. Non-violent demonstrators were also met with immediate and disproportionate force by riot police. The mission calls for new orders to be given immediately to police forces, in order to ensure that the rights of citizens to freedom of expression and assembly are honoured.
In addition to the aforementioned recommendations, the delegation makes the following recommendations to the Bahraini authorities:
• overturn the convictions, following unfair trials, of demonstrators and human rights defenders and activists, and immediately free them;
• bring an end to the trial of doctors and medics being prosecuted for carrying out their duties toward citizens wounded during demonstrations and to allow them to resume their work immediately;
• end the harassment of journalists and allow all journalists to carry out their work without fear of reprisals;
• fully investigate the torture and deaths in custody of detainees, including journalists Zakariya Al Asheri, founder of Al Dair online news website, who died on 9 April and Karim Fakhrawy of "Al Wasat", who died on 12 April, and bring those responsible to justice;
• bring an end to the censorship of thousands of websites, including independent media and NGOs including IFEX members the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI);
• allow all students and teachers who participated in the demonstrations to return to their studies and teaching;
• respect the right to freedom of expression and opinion for all people in Bahrain, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bahrain Constitution.
Representatives from six international rights groups carried out a fact-finding mission to Bahrain between 20-30 November 2011. The mission team was composed of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (Egypt), Front Line Defenders (Ireland), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (Ireland/Lebanon), Index on Censorship (UK), International Media Support (Denmark) and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International (UK). Mission support was provided by the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), of which three of the mission team are members. A full mission report will be released internationally in English and Arabic in the new year.