On Wednesday evening, June 11, 2014, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, in conjunction with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS), and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, organized an open event on ongoing violations in the Bahraini justice system. Titled “Bahrain: Empty Promises, Crowded Prisons” the seminar looked at the judicial system in Bahrain, the continued imprisonment of political prisoners, and the generally poor conditions in Bahraini prisons. It also touched on the Bahraini government’s failure to implement promises to improve the status of human rights in the country, ongoing restrictions on liberties, and the lack of accountability for government bodies responsible for many of these violations.
The event, held in Geneva on the sidelines of the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council, hosted Maryam al-Khawaja, the deputy director of the BCHR and the co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, and Philippe Dam, UN Advocacy Representative of Human Rights Watch. Nabeel Rajab, the president of the BCHR and the deputy secretary-general of the FIDH, also participated in the meeting via Skype, after the British consulate held his passport for more than 11 days, refusing to grant him a visa to enter Britain or return his passport. Mr. Jeremie Smith, director of the Geneva office of CIHRS, chaired the event.
Smith inaugurated the meeting with regrets for Rajab’s absence, expressing the hope that he would soon welcome him to Geneva. He noted that this was the first time that Rajab was participating in a UN event since his release from prison on May 24, after serving a two-year sentence.
In his statement via skype, Rajab offered his gratitude to everyone who supports the rights struggle in Bahrain and for the strong support he received in prison, whether in writing, petitions, demonstrations, and other forms of legitimate protest. He praised the solidarity campaigns launched in various parts of the world, saying, “These campaigns and this support made me feel that I’m not alone.” Rajab held back tears as he mourned three children who were killed while bearing his image in protests demanding his release.
Rajab apologized for his lack of familiarity with the latest developments in Bahrain, saying that he was isolated in prison for two years and intentionally denied sources of information and news. “They were difficult years,” he said, “but that is the price that must be paid by those who struggle for democracy.”
In his talk, Philippe Dam focused on a Human Rights Watch report issued on May 29, “Criminalizing Dissent, Entrenching Impunity.” The report highlights the crisis of judicial independence in Bahrain. Dam noted that despite three years since the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, most of its recommendations have not been implemented. The Human Rights Watch report looks at several cases of political and rights activists who have been detained for exercising their right to express their opinions and falsely charged with inciting hatred and violence.
Dam concluded his talk with a review of the report’s recommendations, which focused on the immediate release of political prisoners, the adoption of effective policies to promote freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Dam regarded recent missions of the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to Bahrain as a positive step yet he noted that they requires solid follow up. Commenting on this, Smith, the moderator, stated that “promises are alone not progress” stressing that the UN must take tangible measures to improve human rights in the ground in Bahrain.
Attendees thanked a number of UN member states—47 of them—which during the current session had signed a joint statement condemning the deterioration of human rights in Bahrain. Smith reiterated the calls made previously by NGOs that the council should address Bahrain with a resolution if the situation on the ground is not improved.
In her talk, Maryam al-Khawaja focused on the report recently issued by the BCHR in conjunction with the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, “Locked Inside A Nightmare,” which looks at conditions of detention and arrest in Bahrain, examining several prison hunger strikes and political prisoners who have died due to lack of appropriate medical treatment. Al-Khawaja also talked about violations related to detainees being denied access to their attorneys and the ambiguous circumstances and causes for arrest, as well as the nature of detention facilities. Al-Kawaja pointed out that in particular, the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID), considered one of the most terrifying places in Bahrain, has seen detainees tortured to extract confessions.
The BCHR report also addresses cases of involuntary disappearance, ill treatment in Bahraini prisons, the lack of medical care and denial of hospital treatment, and cases in which prisoners’ family members were arrested when trying to visit them. Al-Khawaja also reviewed the report’s conclusions on the status of women (particularly migrant women) and children in prisons. She closed her talk by commenting, “Unfortunately, the cohesion of the regime depends on the guards in these prisons” who are not held accountable regardless of their crimes against detainees.
The BCHR report recommendations included the immediate release of political prisoners, respect for UN standards on detention facilities, and allowing UN Special Rapporteurs especially the Rapporteur on Torture- to visit the country. The report also urged Bahrain to sign the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture.
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