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Local rights group argues Bahrain should not host Arab Court for Human Rights

On 1 September 2013, Arab League foreign ministers announced their decision to set up a pan-Arab human rights court in Bahrain, a country whose human rights record has come under intense scrutiny by local and international human rights organisations over its handling of unrest since anti-government protests broke out in early 2011.

No details have been issued about the mandate and powers of the court, how judges would be appointed, or when it might open. Rights organisations have received the news with skepticism and many fear the court may be used as a tool to better its image and hide the violations it commits. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a member of the IFEX network, has produced a report, presented below, detailing the violations committed by government officials and members of the ruling family which should render Bahrain ineligible to host the Arab Court for Human Rights.


Riot police catch a Bahraini anti-government protester in the village of Shakhura on 14 August 2013
Riot police catch a Bahraini anti-government protester in the village of Shakhura on 14 August 2013

AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

On the establishment of an Arab Court for Human Rights in Bahrain

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) welcomes the idea of establishing an Arab court to prosecute human right violators; however, BCHR received the news of the Arab League Council's approval for Bahrain to host the permanent headquarters of the Arab court with dismay.

The sincerity of the objectives of establishing such a court in Bahrain fades given the government's and the ruling family's notorious human rights record. Many violations have been documented by leading human rights organizations over the past few years.

On 8 February 2010, Human Rights Watch issued its well-known report on Bahrain: 'Torture Redux'. The report is based on interviews with former detainees and on forensic and court reports. It concluded that since the end of 2007, officials have been resorting to the practice of torture in what seems like an attempt to extract confessions from suspects in security cases.

In March 2011, the regime put civilians on trial in military courts, which is considered a violation of the judiciary in Bahrain and is incompatible with the international standards of fair trials. International condemnations were expressed against the severe sentences handed down by the military court, among them the statement of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Below are some of the statements issued at the time:

  • The High Commissioner for Human Rights says the Bahrain trials bear marks of political persecution;
  • The UN Secretary-General expresses his deep concern regarding the long prison sentences handed down to political and human rights activists in Bahrain;
  • International human rights organizations condemn the severe sentences against the activists following unjust trials;
  • Washington is ‘concerned’ about the life-imprisonment sentences against the opposition in Bahrain;
  • The British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East is concerned about the verdicts in Bahrain.

On 17 August 2011, BCHR released a report about citizens who were reportedly subjected to torture at the hands of members of the ruling family in Bahrain who repeatedly beat and tortured political prisoners.

The graveness of the brutal and systematic torture practiced by the authorities in Bahrain against political detainees and human rights activists in detention centers was evident in the documentation of four cases of death under torture that took place within nine days, amongst them one of the founders of AlWasat newspaper and an Internet activist.

BCHR also released a number of reports that state that the authorities in Bahrain have adopted a policy of impunity. A video clip was recently spread on the internet showing Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the longest standing unelected prime minister in the world (43 years), visiting an officer who has been repeatedly pointed out as being involved in torture by victims but was acquitted in court, to thank him and to reassure that impunity exists.

On the 7 July 2013, a pro-government account uploaded a video of the Prime Minister on Youtube during his visit to Officer Mubarak bin Huwail following his acquittal on 1 July 2013 from charges related to torturing medics in the detention center in 2011.

On 26 July 2013, Amnesty International released a report: 'Still no justice for torture cases, the torture of Nazeeha Saeed'.

And 27 July, 2013, Frontline Defenders released: 'Bahrain: Trial of Human Rights Defender Mr Naji Fateel Falls Short of International Standards'.

Naji Fateel is a member of the Board of Directors at the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), and an active human rights defender who documents and reports on human rights violations in Bahrain.

Arrest and torture of journalists

This is in addition to the violations of the government of Bahrain against freedom of the press. Although Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa pledged to support freedom of the press, the situation last year did not improve. Throughout the past year, several journalists and bloggers in Bahrain were subjected to harassments, assaults, arrests and torture due to their work. Journalists working near pro-democracy demonstrations were targeted in a systematic manner by the security forces.

Arrests and trials of Internet Users

On 9 July 2012, the President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the former Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to three months in prison and was arrested on the charge of 'insulting the citizens of Muharraq through Twitter' for information he published on Twitter demanding the Prime Minister to step down, and discussing his visit to the Island of Muharraq.

Although he was acquitted of this charge at the Court of Appeal, he remains in prison serving another two-year sentence on the charge of participating in demonstrations and calling for gatherings through social networks.

A protester holds a placard with the words:
A protester holds a placard with the words: "Dont Forget Nabeel Rajab" as she participates in a protest organised by Bahrain's main opposition Al Wefaq on 5 April 2013

REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

On 17 December 2012, Acting Vice-President and Head of Monitoring & Follow Up at BCHR Sayed Yousif Al-Muhafdah was arrested while monitoring a demonstration in Manama and posting tweets on Twitter about the suppression of demonstrators. He was accused of 'spreading false news through Twitter' and spent a month in detention. Despite being acquitted by the court on 11 March 2013, the public prosecution appealed against his acquittal.

The prominent Bahraini blogger Ali Abdulemam was sentenced to 15 years in absentia by a military court on 22 June 2011 on the charge of 'being part of a terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the government'.

Ali Abdulemam is the founder of Bahrain Online, a Bahraini electronic forum where critical opinions of the government are published regularly, and where the first call for protests on 14 February 2011 appeared. He was also arrested from September 2010 to February 2011, and was subjected to torture during that period.

Denial of access to the country

On 14 July, 2012, Bahrain deported the American film director Jane Marlow, after she was arrested for a short while and questioned before being sent to Jordan. The authorities accused her of forging the visa application and filming a documentary without obtaining permission.

Nick Kristof, who writes for The New York Times, was denied entrance to the country 20 December 2012 and informed that he was in the 'black list'. The journalist, who is a two time Pulitzer Prize winner, strongly criticizes the Bahraini authorities in his reports.

During his last visit to Bahrain in December 2011 he was subjected to an attack with the use of teargas and was arrested for a short while along with his cameraman.

Habiba Hamed, an editorial writer at the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, stated that she was interrogated for five hours in the Bahrain airport on 11 February 2013, then denied access, although she had not come to submit a report about the political situation.

The authorities checked her Twitter account and found that it contained comments about Bahrain. They wanted her to apply for a visa through the Ministry of Information first, before coming to Bahrain.

On 19 April, 2013, the ITV news crew were held while they were filming in Bahrain and were then taken to the police station where they were asked to leave the country, although their visas were approved by the relevant ministry. The decision to deport them followed a report released the night before by the channel in which it criticized the Bahrain government.

On 9 August 2013, BCHR released a report detailing how acting President of BCHR Maryam Al-Khawaja was prevented from traveling to Bahrain on British Airways. Al-Khawaja was denied boarding by British Airways at the orders of the government of Bahrain. She had decided to visit Bahrain to monitor the situation before planned protests on 14 August.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) also released a report on 14 March 2013 regarding the attack carried out by the GCC governments against human rights defenders because they deal with the UN. The report is called “Cut off from the World: Systematic Reprisals against Human Rights Defenders in the Gulf Region for Engaging with the United Nations”.

The report addresses governmental attacks, acts of threats and defamation carried out by the governments of some of the GCC countries such as Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Sultanate of Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against human rights defenders as a result of their cooperation with the mechanisms of human rights affiliated with the UN during the last two years, and especially in the context of its 21st session of the Human Rights Council that was held in September 2012.

The report presents an overview of the suppressive existing laws in these countries, which criminalise work in the field of human rights.

BCHR asserts that the government of Bahrain is ineligible to host and establish an Arab court that attends to defending human rights and holding violators and criminals accountable. These types of courts require international standards and the involvement of human rights organizations. The host country of such a court should be chosen on the basis of whether this country holds a respectable human rights record which Bahrain lacks causing dozens of negative reactions from international organizations as well as the media. Bahrain also lacks the presence of effective assurances to meet the aspirations of neutrality and justice.

BCHR is concerned that due to the track record of human rights violations in Bahrain, such a court will be used as a tool against civil society and independent human rights organizations; just as the local judiciary system has become a tool to target and imprison activists.

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