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Bearing Witness: Bahrain and the UPR Process

In United Nations Human Rights Council by CIHRS

Yesterday, Tuesday, 18 September 2012, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the International Federation for Human Rights, CIVICUS, Human Rights Watch, and the Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture and Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organisation (BRAVO) held a side event entitled Bearing Witness: Bahrain and the UPR Process as part of the 21st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council currently taking place in Geneva, Switzerland.

Panelists at this event were Ms. Maryam al-Khawaja, Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Dr. Nada Dhaif, chair of Bravo, Mr. Abdullah Hussein, member of the Bahrain Workers Union, Dr. Rola al-Safar, head of the Bahrain’s Nurses’ Society, and Ms. Farida Ghoulam, member of the Khiam Rehabilitation Center.

Dr. Nada Dhaif, a medical doctor who witnessed violations on the ground in Bahrain, gave a general overview of the history of the Bahraini protests since 14 February 2011. She discussed the peaceful nature of the protests and explained that the movement has continued until now. She described the case of the 20 medics who were arrested, tortured, and tried in military trials, in clear violation of international standards for fair trials. Dr. Dhaif asserted that the Bahraini police are known to have been involved in attacking, and torturing pro-democracy protestors, raiding homes in the middle of the night without search warrants, and using tear gas, batons, and shot guns, against protestors. Finally, Dr. Dhaif discussed the state of the judiciary in Bahrain, comparing the treatment of police accused of torture who are left free and continue to work even as their trials are ongoing, while protestors – some as young as 11 – are held in pre-trial detention. She asserted that the right to religion has also been violated in Bahrain, including through the demolition of dozens of Shi’a mosques by government forces.

Dr. Rola al-Safar elaborated more on the violations committed against medical professionals. Dr. Al-Safar herself was among the group of medics who were arrested; she was held for 5 months and subjected to electric shocks and other forms of ill-treatment. In addition, dozens of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals were suspended or fired simply for volunteering either at Pearl Roundabout or the hospitals during the time of the protests in order to offer medical attention to injured demonstrators. She expressed her deep concern over two medics who continue to be held by the Bahraini authorities after 18 months in detention. She explained that a smear campaign continues to seek to spread hatred against Shi’as in Bahrain, including against civil society organizations and medical societies. She called for the release of all prisoners of conscience, the dropping of all charges against them, the reinstatement of medics to their positions, and further monitoring of the state of rights in Bahrain, and she called for medical neutrality.

Ms. Farida al-Ghoulam spoke about Bahraini prisoners of conscience, explaining that the state of Bahrain continues to deny that there are any such prisoners, despite the fact that her husband, Ibrahim Sherif, who was sentenced to 5 years in prison and is the secretary general of the first licensed political organization in Bahrain, is among the 14 prisoners mentioned by the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) being held for their peaceful activities and expression of opinions. They have been targeted for their calls for a transition to a constitutional monarchy and for denouncing government abuses and corruption, and the different charges brought against them include attempting to overthrow the regime by force and working with foreign countries against the Bahraini state.

These prisoners of conscience have been subjected to various forms of torture and ill-treatment, including blindfolding and handcuffing, punching, beating, burning with cigarettes, sexual harassment and rape, solitary confinement, electric shocks, and sleep deprivation. Moreover, the report of the BICI states that such mistreatment was at times used for the purpose of extracting confessions and at other times as a form of retribution. The Bahraini government now denies any use of torture. The same report also asserts that a culture of impunity exists in Bahrain, with few incentives for police and prison guards to refrain from torturing detainees.

Mr. Abdullah Hosen gave an overview of the economic situation in Bahrain, explaining that one of the major problems which affected Bahrain over the last year is the dismissal of some 2,500 people from their jobs, which is a large percentage of breadwinners in this small country. These individuals were targeted for having participated in or being suspected of supporting pro democracy protests and included professionals of many different fields, including lawyers, journalists, doctors, and teachers. These measures have increased fear among the rest of the population, making them both unwilling to speak out for fear of being subjected to similar reprisals and more cautious economically, which has further negatively affected the economic growth of the country.

Mr. Hussein Called upon the Bahraini authorities to put an end to resorting to these retributive policies, for people should be able to express themselves freely without fear of economic – or other – reprisals.

Finally, Ms. Maryam al-Khawaja discussed the impacts of the various reports issued on Bahrain, including the BICI report and the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is being followed this year by Bahrain’s second round of the UPR, which was adopted at a Human Rights Council’s session today (19 September, 2012). She noted that since the previous UPR session on Bahrain, the country has seen only failures to implement the recommendations made at that time. “We must ensure that the coming four year cycle of the UPR does not turn into another failure,” she said.

Ms. Al-Khawaja also expressed her disappointment that despite the recent report of the BICI, human rights violations continue. To illustrate this, she shared the example of her sister, Zeinab al-Khawaja, who is currently being held on charges of having ripped a picture of the king, among other politically motivated charges leveled against her.

When Zeinab’s lawyer attempted to present information from the BICI report to the court, the judge declared that “we do not accept the BICI report as part of this case. The BICI is part of the past; we are looking to the future.” “We don’t want the recommendations of the UPR to be treated the same way the recommendations of the BICI were treated,” said al-Khawaja in summary.

Ms. Al-Khawaja also addressed the issue of reprisals against human rights defenders who are targeted for their participation with the international human rights mechanisms, such as at the Human Rights Council (HRC). “In Bahrain today, the most prominent human rights defenders sit behind bars. They used to participate in forums like here [the HRC], where they were trying to make their country a better place that respects human rights principles.”

Ms. Al-Khawaja emphasized the trend that “if you [as a country] are important to the West, geopolitically and economically, and especially if you are important to the US and UK, your human rights violations will be overlooked.” She asserted that double standards on human rights at the UN must be discussed, or the entire rights system will be nothing but a show. Finally, al-Khawaja presented four demands: 1. Special session on Bahrain at HRC, 2. Joint statement by states denouncing the human rights violations in Bahrain at the next session of the Council, 3. Fact-finding mission to be conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to look into the rights situation in Bahrain 4. Inquiry into the implementation of recommendations of BICI by the Council.

On Wednesday, 19 September, CIHRS submitted these requests to the HRC through an oral intervention, that was delivered by Ms. Al Khawaja during Bahrain’s UPR session. The intervention shed light on the status of human rights in Bahrain since May 2012, highlighting the continuation of violations to the right to freedom of assembly and opinion in addition to the use of arbitrary arrests and torture to silence dissent. The intervention also mentioned the dramatic escalation to the targeting of local human rights defenders and the use of reprisals against them, as the government continues to use the judiciary system as a tool to imprison defenders and protestors with no due process.

The side event comes one day after two men carrying badges accredited by the Bahraini government harassed and attempted to intimidate speakers at a previous panel co-organized by CIHRS to discuss human rights violations in the Gulf region.

Yesterday’s event was also interrupted by one of the same individuals, who accused the participants of being funded by Iran and being terrorists and had to be escorted out of the room by security.

CIHRS believes that such acts of reprisals, some occurring inside the premises of the UN, should be immediately and seriously examined by the Human Rights Council, with the view of ensuring non-reoccurrence and full protection for the human rights defenders involved.

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