Learning from the worst dictators: Human rights defenders under severe attack in Bahrain

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The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) demands the immediate release of all detained Bahraini human rights defenders and the dropping of all politically motivated charges against them.

Human rights violations in the Kingdom of Bahrain have reached unprecedented levels since the crackdown against mass prodemocracy protests started in February of last year. Authorities in Bahrain have engaged in gross human rights violations including lethal attacks on protesters and the excessive use of force against them, reported use of torture, the unfair trials of hundreds in special tribunals during the State of National Safety, targeting of medics, and the dismissal of hundreds of workers and students from their jobs and universities.

While on the surface, the Bahraini government appears to be engaged in reform attempts, starting from appointing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to passing some cosmetic constitutional amendments, the human rights situation on the ground is worsening with almost daily attacks on protests and a complete crackdown against human rights defenders in the country. “If you are a Bahraini human rights defender, then you are probably in prison, were detained in the past year, or living in exile “said Ziad Abdel Tawab, Deputy Director of CIHRS. “Bahrain is home to some of the most distinguished human rights defenders in the region. Yet, instead of celebrating them, the government has shown unprecedented intolerance for their work. As the magnitude of the human rights violations against protestors increases, so does the brutality against human rights defenders.”

On Saturday, authorities arrested prominent rights defender Nabeel Ragab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, at Al Manama International airport as he was returning from a trip to Beirut. Ragab was already scheduled to appear in court, on charges of illegal assembly and insult to the statutory bodies, one day following his arrest.

Upon his arrest, Ragab was kept overnight al Al-Hoora police station and was brought the following day before a court which postponed the session until May 22. Later that day, the public prosecution ordered the detention of the human rights defender for 7 days pending investigation. According to statements made by the Senior Attorney, there is “compelling” evidence against the activist that he posted “defamatory and humiliating” views on Twitter, and thus he faces charges of “defaming an official authority.”

Nabeel Ragab, has been subjected to numerous incidents of harassments by the authorities for his human rights and advocacy work in the past. Harassment against Ragab throughout the last year alone varied from brief periods of detention and physical assaults, to media smear campaigns and targeted attacks on his house with teargas.

On the same day, May 6, the trial of Zainab Al-Khawaja, prominent activist and daughter of detained human rights defender Abdaulhadi Al Khawaja was postponed until May 9, and her detention was extended. Zainab, 28 years old, was arrested on April 21 after protesting alone in the street against the continued detention of her father. Zainab is facing charges of illegal gathering, obstructing traffic and assaulting officers. The charges compromise 5 cases against the activist, who was arrested 4 times throughout the last month alone. Zainab has reported to her family members, many of whom have been systematically targeted by authorities, that she was subjected to severe beatings following her arrest in April while at Al-Hoora police station.

Around 13 months have passed since 14 political and human rights activists were imprisoned on politically motivated charges without solid evidence. These charges include conspiring to overthrow the regime, establishing or managing a terrorist group, and other vague accusations. The unfair trial and harsh sentences against the 21 activists, 7 of which were tried in absentia, range from 2 years to reach life imprisonment for exercising their basic human rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Among the detainees is world renowned defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja who is currently on the 89th day of his hunger strike amid wide international calls to release him, as his health situation deteriorates drastically. Other activists, particularly Dr. Abduljalil Al Sigance, spokesman and director of the human rights bureau of Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy, and Hassan Mashaima, Haq’s Secretary General, who are also serving life sentences and, like Al Khawaja, suffer from severe health problems.

The recent referral of the cases to a civilian criminal appeals court by the Court of Cassation on April 30 can take several months- time which Al Khawaja does not have, given his current heath condition. “In the case of Al Khawaja and the other 13 detained activists, over a year has passed since their detention on fabricated charges. Neither Al Khawaja’s health nor the international human rights standards allow for their continued detention until the newly appointed court issues its final verdict,” said Sohair Riad, CIHRS Researcher.

“The new escalation we see in recent cases against activists in the country is a direct consequence of the atmosphere of almost absolute impunity enjoyed by officials in Bahrain and fostered by the silence of the international community. Even in dealing with ordinary protesters, we have observed alarming developments over the past few months, whether through the continuation of bringing charges against and detaining female protesters and minors, or through the unwarranted use of tear gas in neighborhoods which have resulted in many fatalities.”

CIHRS believes that the continued struggle for democracy of the Bahraini people should be recognized as an important step towards a democratic future for the county. The punitive campaign against the pro-democracy movement, terrorizing of the local population and manipulating the draconian legislation to arrest and detain activists and human rights defenders severely harmed the reputation of the Bahraini government and undermined all possible means for a potential democratic transformation in the country. The only way to ensure stability in Bahrain is through establishing the principles of human rights and democracy;  stopping all violations committed against protesters; bringing the perpetrators of human rights violations to justice; providing remedies to the victims and next of kin ; as well as releasing all political prisoners, human rights defenders and political opposition activists.

This post is also available in: العربية

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