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Ahead of regional talks in Bahrain, EU urged to focus on worsening rights situation

The following is a letter sent by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights to the High Representative of the European Union Baroness Catherine Ashton ahead of the European Union (EU)-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministerial meeting urging her to make a determined effort in pushing for improvement in the human rights situation in Bahrain.

Baroness Catherine Ashton

High Representative of the European Union

For Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

Vice-President of the European Commission

242, Rue de la Loi

1049 Brussels


Manama, 23 June 2013

Dear High Representative,

Ahead of the European Union (EU)-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministerial meeting scheduled to take place in Manama on 1 July 2013, the undersigned organisations are writing to urge you to make a determined effort in pushing for improvements in the human rights situation in Bahrain, through the release of all prisoners in Bahrain who are detained solely for peacefully exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. As a first step, we ask you to provide leadership and work together with the 27 EU member states to ensure the adoption of Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on the human rights situation in Bahrain.

Since February 2011, the human rights situation in Bahrain has dramatically worsened, with widespread and serious human rights violations carried out against those who have partaken in or were perceived to have supported pro-democracy protests in the country. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found evidence of torture, deaths in custody, and arbitrary detention, and concluded that the abuses “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure” of the security forces. The government has so far failed to ensure a process of independent review and accountability for individuals, particularly at the command and supervision level, who may be responsible for these violations. Instead the government has continued a widespread campaign of harassment against opposition activists, demonstrators, and human rights defenders.

On 7 January 2013, Bahrain's highest court upheld the convictions of 13 leading activists for their role in promoting pro-democracy demonstrations, despite the fact that their offenses consisted solely of peacefully advocating for political change. Investigations led by human rights NGOs into the trials of these and other individuals lead us to share the concern expressed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about the lack of fairness and due process afforded to the defendants and the especially harsh sentences handed down, including seven life sentences, to prominent human rights defenders as well as political opposition leaders such as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Abdul-Jalil al-Singace.

The government of Bahrain has attempted to deflect international criticism by accepting 143 of the 176 recommendations during its recent Universal Periodic Review, but for the most part, the authorities deny that human rights violations have occurred and avoided putting its promises for reform into practice, including seriously addressing continuing violations and accountability for past abuses. We remain highly concerned over the lack of independent, effective and transparent investigations with regards to allegations of torture, lack of due process and killings of protestors. Contrary to the government's assertions, in our assessment the key recommendations made by the BICI are not being implemented.

Bahrain's imprisonment of dissenting voices has continued with the imprisonment of numerous prominent activists and human rights defenders. These include the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, sentenced to two years' imprisonment for participating and calling for “illegal gatherings” and Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, sentenced to three months in jail in March 2013 for “insulting and humiliating a public employee”. Although the Bahrain court of appeal overturned the convictions of 21 medical professionals on 28 March 2013, other medical professionals remain in detention for their role in the protests in 2011, including Dr. Ali Al-Ekri who the court of appeal sentenced to five years' imprisonment in November 2012.

We express our serious concern over the ongoing campaign of judicial harassments against human rights defenders in Bahrain, including the very recent trial of defender Mohammed Al-Maskati, the President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights on freedom of assembly related charges.

We take note that you have regularly called on the Bahraini authorities to implement the BICI recommendations and have expressed concerns around the sentencing of opposition activists. However, your public statements have failed to make explicit calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the activists. We therefore call on you to use the leverage provided through the upcoming EU-GCC meeting hosted by Bahrain and explicitly call for the immediate and unconditional release of anyone imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights, name the individuals in question and publicly and privately press for their release in advance of the joint EU-GCC meeting.

On 17 January 2013, the European Parliament called on you and EU member states to “actively push for the release of the imprisoned activists” and “to ensure the adoption of Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on the human rights situation in Bahrain, which should include a specific call for the immediate and unconditional release of the imprisoned activists". We urge you to implement the European Parliament's call and to work together with EU member states for the adoption of Foreign Affairs Council conclusions calling on the government of Bahrain to:

  • Release immediately and unconditionally those held for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly;
  • Conduct independent, effective and transparent investigations, by an independent body outside the Public Prosecutor’s Office, into all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, and make the results public;
  • Ensure that anyone, at any level of the chain of command, who committed, ordered, condoned, or knowingly or negligently failed to investigate alleged human rights violations is held accountable, including through criminal prosecutions;
  • Refrain from further use of unnecessary or excessive force against protesters and ensure any members of security forces who use such force are held accountable.

With the adoption of the EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy in June 2012, the EU pledged to “place human rights at the centre of its relations with all third countries, including its strategic partners” and to throw its “full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy, and human rights throughout the world”. In line with this new framework and the EU guidelines on human rights defenders, the EU and its 27 member states have a responsibility to turn these important pledges into concrete action by ensuring a strong and principled EU policy vis-à-vis Bahrain that specifically addresses the situation of human rights defenders and other activists who have been unjustly imprisoned.

Thank you,

Sincerely,

Mr. Mohammed Al-Maskati

President
Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights

Ms. Maryam Al-Khawaja

Acting-President
Bahrain Centre for Human Rights

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