By William Fisher
Even as Bahrain accepted many of the recommendations to end human rights violations made during a UN review this week at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Bahraini human rights defenders reported threats against them as a result of their participation in the process.
At the upper levels of Bahraini Government, officials appeared to be using the rhetoric of statesmanship to convey their wish for sweeping reforms and maximum dialogue with citizens who have been demonstrating against the official repression that has kept the tiny country's revolution alive for more than a year.
Bahrain, strategically positioned in the Arabian Gulf, is a kingdom ruled by Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the King of Bahrain, and the al Khalifa family. King Hamad is a Sunni Muslim while a large majority of the country's population is Shia Muslim. Shia citizens complain against discrimination in landing top jobs, accessing credit and property ownership. The country is of particular concern to the US as it is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close neighbor to US ally, Saudi Arabia. At least 50 Bahrainis have been killed in clashes with the country's security forces and with Saudi troops, who were dispatched under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The King and his men have taken a number of bold moves to neutralize their opposition. He commissioned as blue-ribbon task force, headed by a distinguished Egyptian judge, to study the conflict from the very beginning and present findings and recommendations. He accepted the judge's report personally and promised to begin immediately to implement its recommendations.
The report corroborated many of the people's complaints, including the use of torture in the county's prisons. The King made a number of appointments to correct that situation, including the appointment of John Timoney, former chief of police in Miami, Florida, as a senior consultant, and the naming of a new head of the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police and prisoners. The King also approved the establishment of an Ombudsman to investigate and adjudicate complaints made by either government or citizens against authorities.
In his final remarks at Bahrain's UPR adoption, H.E. Mr. Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied that anyone was kept in jail for exercising their free expression. He claimed all charges related to free expression had been dropped, and admitted "there may be some controversies" over certain cases.
Another major move by the government has been its attendance, along with several human rights groups, at the United Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Bahrain, a United Nations process whereby states and NGOs contribute towards improving the human rights record of a country. Bahrain was presented with 176 recommendations, immediately accepted 145 of them, and promised to study others.
Yet another major idea put for by Bahrain was its proposal that the Arab League establish a Human Rights Tribunal. The League also announced two high level appointments it said would represent a greater involvement of Bahraini women in decision-making positions, as well as providing regional support and recognition for working women.
Arab League Secretary General Dr. Nabeel Al-Arabi reinforced the proposal by declaring that the Tribunal will contribute to the regional efforts of the Arab states in supporting respect for Human Rights.
In her oral intervention at the UN, Maryam Al-Khawaja, of the Bahrain Council of Human Rights, noted, "The situation of targeting human rights defenders and the use of reprisals has dramatically escalated. Human rights defenders are constantly arrested, mistreated and the government continues to use the judiciary system as a tool to lock them up. Most, if not all of their charges are based on freedom of expression."
Among those detained are her father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, a founder of BCHR, who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in peaceful protests last year, and BCHR's President Nabeel Rajab, sentenced in August to three years in prison for calling for "illegal gatherings." During its intervention at the UN, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also noted that blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace had been sentenced to life and blogger Ali Abdulemam had been sentenced to 15 years in absentia - in violation of their right to free expression.
Maryam Al-Khawaja noted that there are approximately 1,400 political prisoners in Bahrain, 50 of whom are under 18.
As well, she reports, "The security forces are still using excessive force to repress all daily protests. Security forces continue the unprecedented use of tear gas during protests and inside residential areas. Also, arbitrary arrests using excessive force on the streets and during home raids by beating and insulting detainees are still ongoing and are not excluding minors. Many detainees are held in very bad conditions in the prisons and systematic torture is still ongoing in official and unofficial torture centers."
Dr. Nada Dhaif, of the Bahrain Rehabilitation & Anti Violence Organization (BRAVO), made an oral intervention highlighting the impact on families of having their loved ones detained, and mentioning that protesters are hurt by police, such as Zainab Al-Khawaja, currently detained with a broken leg. She also mentioned the reprisals against human rights defenders who travel to Geneva and forcefully called on the Foreign Minister to immediately release all political prisoners. "Activists are not criminals," she said.
Among Bahraini human rights defenders lobbying in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) who have been threatened or harassed was Mohammed Al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, who received death threats over the past week. Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan published photos of the civil society activists who were in Geneva, and the threats continue.