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Bahrain: Authorities Escalate Crackdown on Shia Clerics and Freedom of Religion

The Bahrain Center For Human Rights (BCHR) expresses grave concern over the escalation of the crackdown on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Bahrain. Following the recent alarming repression of human rights defenders and civil society, the authorities began targeting and prosecuting more religious figures in the country.

On 14 June 2016, the Ministry of Social Development closed down two non-profit religious societies: Al-Risala Islamic Society and the Islamic Enlightenment Society (Al-Taweya), and access to the website of the latter was blocked in Bahrain. The Public Prosecution said in a statement on 15 June that it has completed an investigation into “instances of illegal fund-raising and money-laundering” attributed to officials from these societies. The head of Al-Risala society, Mahmood Al-Arab was arrested on 14 June 2016 and remains in custody.

On 15 Jun 2016, the Bahraini authorities informed Shaikh Mohamed Sanqoor that he is suspended from conducting sermons and leading Friday prayers at Imam Sadiq Mosque in Al-Deraz, where the largest Shia Friday prayer is held on a weekly basis. No reason was made public on the decision. Following that, Shia prayer Imams have issued a statement in which they declare feeling “unsafe” to conduct their mass prayers. As such, they have decided to suspend all weekly Friday mass prayers until further notice. Following this, the Jaffari Endowment released a statement warning against “suspicious calls being made to disturb the spirituality and piety of Ramadan.” Based on this warning, on 16 June 2016, the authorities summoned Shia cleric Sheikh Abdulmuhsen Attya AlJamri, for supporting the decision to suspend Friday prayers.

These actions have been accompanied with a rise in summons and interrogations of clerics.  On 15 June 2016, at least nine clerics received a summons to attend interrogation on the following day, for what the Public Prosecution stated was an investigation on allegations of “illegal collection of money” as per the latest statement of the Public Prosecution. BCHR has identified among those summoned to appear on 16 June 2016 as:

  1. Sheikh Majeed Al-Mishal: the head of the dissolved Islamic Scholars Council.
  2. Sheikh Baqer Al-Hawaj, the head of the Islamic Enlightenment Society who was also summoned for an interrogation that lasted for six hours on 14 June, and received another summons for interrogation on 16 June 2016.
  3. Sheikh Hussain Al-Mahroos: the Office director for Sheikh Isa Qassim, the most prominent religious figure for the shia community in Bahrain and a founder of the Islamic Enlightenment Society.
  4. On the night of 15 June 2016, the security forces raided the house of Sheikh Hasan Al-Maleki at Malkiya village to hand him a summon. However, he is currently outside the country.
  5. Sheikh Ebrahim AlAnsari: Shia cleric and preacher.
  6. Sayed Hashim Al-Bahrani: a member of Al-Wefaq political society which was shut down several days ago.
  7. Sheikh Abdulmuhsen Attya AlJamri: was summoned at a late hour on 16 June 2016, just a few hours after he made a statement in support of the decision to suspend Friday prayers.

 

BCHR considers these acts as part of an intimidation campaign against clerics and preachers to hinder religious freedoms and their ability to exercise their freedom of expression. Last month, a cleric, Shaikh Mohamed Al-Mansi, received a one-year imprisonment sentence for an “unauthorized sermon.” In the latest United Nations procedures’ joint communication, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, jointly with other procedures, expressed concern at the government of Bahrain’s engagement in systematic discrimination against Shia. They write of alleged targeting with prosecution of Shia clerics. Currently, at least 20 Shia clerics are in detention over charges related to practicing their right to freedom of religion. On 13 Jun 2016, the Bahraini King promulgated the bill amending the 2005 Political Societies Law, which places a ban on participation in political decision-making based on discriminatory religious grounds, and prevents any religious figure who delivers a sermon from joining political societies or from participating in political activities.

 

Finally, BCHR calls for the Government of Bahrain to:

  • stop targeting Shia clerics’ freedom of religious worship, and of expression;
  • allow the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; and
  • comply with international human rights law, particularly concerning  the freedom of religion and expression.

Bahraini Shias halt Friday prayers, gatherings due to increased persecution

Shia Muslim clerics in Bahrain have stopped holding congregational prayers in the country in protest at the heavy-handed crackdown and persecution by the ruling Al Khalifah regime.

The clerics, in a statement titled “Those Barred from Praying” released on Thursday, condemned the Bahraini regime’s efforts to restrict Shia Muslims’ freedom of religion and belief, describing the situation in the country as “deplorable,” Arabic-language Bahrain Mirror news website reported.

The statement said that the Al Khalifa regime’s systematic suppression of Bahraini Shia Muslims has reached its highest level ever, and members of the kingdom’s largest religious community feel insecure and face threats of arrest and prosecution if they seek to observe their religious rituals, primarily congregational prayers and Friday prayers.

Read the full article here.

Bahrain: journalist’s ten-year jail term upheld, two arrested without warrant

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores an appeal court’s decision to uphold freelance press photographer Sayed Ahmed Al Mousawi’s ten-year jail sentence and the arrests of two bloggers in the past ten days without any warrant or official explanation.

The sentences of Mousawi and 11 co-defendants were confirmed on 13 June. The winner of more than 100 international awards, Mousawi was arrested in February 2014 and was convicted in November 2015 of “distributing SIM cards” to persons supposedly implicated in terrorist actions. His crime was photographing anti-government demonstrations.

Ali Al Maaraj, a blogger who was released from prison on 5 April, was arrested again without a warrant at Manama airport on 5 June, while Nabeel Rajab, a blogger who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was arrested without a warrant at his home on 13 June.

Read the full article here.

Ban dismayed at actions aimed at restricting political opposition in Bahrain

16 June 2016 – Concerned at recent reports in Bahrain of intimidation of human rights defenders and activists for peacefully promoting human rights, as well as for legitimately exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and association, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today said that such actions by the State authorities could potentially damage the human rights situation in the country.

According to a statement issued by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban is concerned at the recent re-arrest of human rights defender Nabil Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights; the dissolution of Al Wefaq, the largest opposition political grouping; and the lengthening of the sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, of Al Wefaq.

Read the full article here.

NGOs call for an end to reprisals against human rights defenders as Nabeel Rajab arrested and Bahraini rights defenders banned from travel to Geneva

As the 32nd Session of United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) opened in Geneva on 13 June, Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain's most high profile human rights defender, was arrested after dozens of police officers raided his home at around 5am and confiscated his electronic devices. The day before, Bahraini human rights defenders and victims of violations were prevented from flying to Geneva.

Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Founding Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Deputy Secretary General of FIDH, was reportedly arrested under order from the Ministry of Interior’s Cybercrimes Unit. Bahraini officials had imposed a travel ban on Rajab a year ago, and since April 2015 have maintained charges against him for crimes related to freedom of expression online. Despite the submission of several appeals against the ban, authorities remained unresponsive. On 14 June 2016, Rajab was transferred to the public prosecution; and new charges were brought against him of allegedly “publishing and broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state.” The public prosecution remanded him to seven days in detention pending investigation.

In a new and concerning escalation of its crackdown against civil society, Bahraini authorities have also banned human rights defenders from leaving the country. The bans were imposed as the activists were attempting to travel from the Bahrain International Airport to Geneva to participate in the 32nd Session of UNHRC. The undersigned organisations are seriously alarmed by Bahrain’s restrictions civil society especially the restrictions preventing them from engaging with the UN.

On 12 June 2016, the Nationality, Passport, and Residence Department officials at Bahrain International Airport prevented at least six individuals from boarding their planes to Geneva. Bahraini authorities imposed a travel ban on Hussain Radhi of BCHR, Ebtisam Al-Saegh, Ebrahim Al-Demistani, someone who does not wish to be named, and the parents of Ali Mushaima, a victim of extrajudicial killing in 2011. The father of another victim of extrajudicial killing, Sayed Hashim, was stopped at King Fahd Causeway and told of the ban.

On 12 June, the authorities at the airport held the passports of Radhi and Al-Saegh for 45 minutes before informing them they were banned from traveling. They were referred to the Ministry of the Interior’s Nationality, Passport, and Residence Department to inquire about the reason for the ban. However, after inquiring at the Department, they were told that there are no travel bans imposed on them. Radhi and Al-Saegh then tried to travel through King Fahd Causeway but were again stopped for up to an hour and told that they cannot travel because of the travel ban.

Al-Demistani was also told that a travel ban – of which he had no prior knowledge - was imposed on him. An official at the Nationality, Passport, and Residence Department confirmed to him that there had been a notice on his name imposed by the public prosecution since 9 June 2016.

On 10 June 2016, authorities banned Dr. Taha Al-Derazi, a former political prisoner and activist, from traveling to the United Kingdom with his wife. He too was told to inquire at the Immigration, Passport, and Residency Department for more information but was also given no reason for the ban. Dr. Al-Derazi participated in the previous UNHRC session and it is believed that the ban is to prevent him from participating in the current session.

On 13 June 2016, Jalila Al-Salman, vice president of the dissolved Bahrain Teachers Society, was not allowed to leave Bahrain when she attempted to travel to Oslo. A travel ban has also been in place against human rights activist Maytham Al-Salman following his participation in various international human rights related conferences.

Preventing civil society from engaging with the UN is a relatively new tool being used in Bahrain to intimidate and silence freedom of expression. A pattern of reprisals against human rights defenders has emerged to prevent reporting on severe ongoing rights abuses in the country. As a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Bahrain has committed to uphold international standards of freedom of movement and freedom of expression. Article 12 of the ICCPR states that, “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” Article 19 states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” Both rights can only be restricted in limited circumstances.

On 06 June 2016, human rights defender Zainab Al-Khawaja and her two children, Jude and Abdulhadi, arrived in Denmark, where she is a dual citizen, after she was forced to leave the country. Al-Khawaja reported that after she was released from prison on 31 May 2016, she was threatened that if she did not leave Bahrain immediately, she would face new cases with lengthy sentences that would result in her being separated from both her children.

In light of this escalated attack on civil society in Bahrain, we call for the immediate release of all human rights defenders in Bahrain including Nabeel Rajab, and for the removal of the imposed travel bans which unfairly restrict activists’ freedom of movement. We also request that the President of the UNHRC, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly call on the Bahraini authorities to immediately and unconditionally lift the travel ban imposed on Bahrain’s civil society activists and guarantee Bahraini human rights defenders are free from intimidation and restrictions on their work, including at the UN. We also call on the international community to hold the government of Bahrain to its commitments and obligations to foster a safe environment for the peaceful enjoyment of universal human rights.

The government of Bahrain must immediately stop the ongoing reprisals against human rights defenders who are engaging with international mechanisms including the UN system.

 

Signed:

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)

Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)

Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD)

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

English PEN

European Centre for Democracy & Human Rights (ECDHR)

FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Front Line Defenders

Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)

IFEX

Index on Censorship

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

Justice Human Rights Organization (JHRO)

Lawyer's Rights Watch Canada (LWRC)

PEN International

Rafto Foundation for Human Rights

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Vivarta

World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection

Concern over safety of incommunicado detention victim Shaker Hani

Bahrain Center for Human Rights expresses concern over the ongoing incommunicado detention of Shaker Hani Ali Salman, 21 years old. Charges underlying his arrest are yet unknown and family has not heard from him since 10 June 2016, when they claimed they received a phone call from him, while being detained at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID).

On 15 May 2016 around 6pm Shaker Hani Ali Salman was arrested at Bahrain International Airport upon arrival from Iran. After being interrogated for three hours on the purpose of his trip to Iran, Shaker was released, only to be re-arrested two days later. On 16 May at around 4:00 am, the security forces raided his house in an attempt to arrest him. However, Shaker was not home that morning, and his family got interrogated instead on the reasons behind his trip to Iran. Shaker was re-arrested without a warrant on 17 May 2016, following a police raid on his aunt’s house around 6:00 am. No search warrant has been presented either.

Shaker had spent one and half years in Iran, where he fled in fear of retaliation from the security forces, which he claimed made threats to detain him once more, following his previous incarceration of one year in 2013 for allegedly attacking police and burning tires. He decided to return home as it was difficult for him to live abroad.  

BCHR has documented the case of Shaker based on his family’s testimonies. According to them, Shaker called his family for a few minutes on 17 May, to announce he was being detained at CID. Few hours later, the family got a call from security officials, who were asking them to bring Skaher’s medicine to treat the pain in his legs. The family claimed they had received two more phone calls that day, and another one the following day, repeating the request to hurry up and bring the medicine for Shaker. His father’s  demand to talk to Shaker in order to search for the medicine was declined.  

On 20 May Shaker’s father delivered the medicine at CID, following a call from the security forces in which they threatened that his son would suffer the consequences if they did not deliver the medicine within the time frame requested.   

His family stated they had received few more calls from Shaker, from what they believed it was the Ministry of Interior’s headquarters, where detainees receive medical care.  In addition, based on the family’s inquiries, the CID officials have not disclosed the nature of the charges brought against Shaker, and there is currently no case raised against him with the office of the public prosecution.

The family is concerned about the safety and health of Shaker, given the fact they last heard of him on 10 June 2016, when he sounded weak. Shaker suffers from a severe form of Sickle cell disease, which is frequently causing acute pain in his legs. His family believes Shaker continues to be detained at CID.  

According to article 9 in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and reiterated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under article 9, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law. “ As a signatory country to these Covenants, Bahraini government is in breach of international law, which prohibits such practices as engaging in arrests without warrants and detention without disclosing charges brought against the detainees.

 

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights calls on the government of Bahrain to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release Shaker Hani Ali Salman and all detainees with special needs, who have been arrested in absence of a warrant;
  • End the practice of subjecting detainees to arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detention and
  • Allow immediate access to his family and to proper health care.

 

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Poets suffer arrest and prosecution in Bahrain for exercising their freedom of speech

 

Bahrain has suffered from a series of stinging attacks on the freedom of artistic expression in recent months. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) is deeply concerned about the continuing unlawful prosecution of Bahrain individuals by the authorities, for exerting their basic human right. The government often uses charges like “disrespecting the monarchy” to incriminate the citizens merely exercising their right to freedom of speech. The authorities’ most recent victim is poet Sayed Hasan Alawi. On the eve of his court hearing, BCHR calls on the Government of Bahrain to release and drop all charges against him.

On 20 April 2016, Sayed Hasan Alawi, a 25 years old religious singer was incarcerated for reciting a poem. Sayed presented himself at Hamad Town roundabout 17 police station after he was summoned the previous day  based on allegations that he insulted the king and the national flag. Sayed was interrogated in absence of a lawyer. The interrogation was related to a poem which Sayed had read out loud on 8 April during the funeral service of Ali Abdulghani, a teenager of 17 years old who was sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges for having participated in a demonstration. Ali was allegedly killed after succumbing to injuries sustained during his arrest by the Bahraini security forces.

During his arrest and interrogation, Sayed Hasan Alawi was intimidated and threatened with torture by the public prosecution. According to his family, he was verbally abused by the prosecutor and forced to sign a confession. Sayed is currently still in detention and awaiting his next court session due on 17 June.

After closely reviewing the poem for which Sayed Hasan Alawi is in jail, the BCHR found no direct reference to the king or other state symbol. BCHR believes that the accusation is based on a biased interpretation of the poem by the Bahraini authorities.

This is not the first case of reciting poems that have led  to citizens being prosecuted. BCHR documented two prior cases of  individuals who have been arrested in Bahrain for expressing their opinion peacefully and openly.

Ayat Al-Qurmezi, a 20 year old poet and student at the Faculty of Teachers in Bahrain, was arrested in 2011 and put on trial for openly reciting a poem that criticized government policy during gatherings at the capital’s Pearl Square. Ayat served two months of her one year sentence. During her incarceration, she was given no legal arguments and her lawyer was not authorized to speak. In addition, she was subjected to beatings, intimidation, harassment and even threats of rape and murder.

On 28 March, Ahmed Al-Ajami was arrested and interrogated in relation to a poem he recited during a solidarity event with imprisoned political leader Ebrahim Sharif. Even though Ahmed has been released, there is no information stating that no official charges will be pressed against him.

Article 19 (2) of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) contend that  every individual has the right to freedom of expression; the right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and idea of all kinds, regardless of the frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. If arrested for exercising their freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial is obligatory. This right to a fair trial will include the presumption of innocence and the right to examine witnesses. According to the interpretation by the UN Human Rights Committee, all ICCPR provisions must be upheld throughout proceedings. This includes the absolute rights under article 7 not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for any purpose.

 

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights calls on the Bahrain government to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, arrested for merely exercising their right to freedom of speech and expression;
  • Abide to international legislation upholding  the right to freedom of expression without any restrictions or arbitrary legal procedures;
  • End the politically-based retaliation against  poets or singers and other artists, and allow them to freely exercise their rights to free speech and
  • End the practice of  imposing arbitrary restrictions on freedom of speech.

 

Bahraini Opposition Group Al Wefaq Suspended

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today said that the suspension of Bahrain's main opposition group Al Wefaq is part of an alarming new crackdown by the government, designed to eliminate all remaining opposition in the country.

“The Bahraini government seems determined to kill all avenues of peaceful dissent. This is a dangerous course, and is likely to fuel extremism and deepen political instability," said Human Rights First's Brian Dooley. "Bahrain has targeted leading human rights figures and opposition leaders in recent weeks; today's move is a major statement of intent by the regime that any prospect of reform is over."

Read the full article here.

NGOs Strongly Condemn Bahrain’s Government Closure Al-Wefaq

14 June 2016- The Bahraini government today closed Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest political society in the country, on charges that the organization supported sectarianism and terrorism. We, the undersigned NGOs, condemn the Bahraini government's decision to dissolve al-Wefaq. We express grave concern over the government’s continued persecution of its political opposition and its elevated assault on peaceful dissent.

Bahrain’s Ministry of Justice submitted a request to the Administrative Court for an emergency order to shut down al-Wefaq this morning. The court approved the request two hours later, which went into effect immediately. Bahraini authorities ordered al-Wefaq suspended, froze all of the society’s assets, halted all of its activities, and closed the headquarters. Al-Wefaq’s website is now blocked in Bahrain.

The Bahraini government rationalized its decision by asserting that al-Wefaq supported a sectarian political platform that countered national unity, owed allegiance to "foreign religious and political" entities, supported terrorism and extremism that threaten the state, and called for foreign intervention. The court arrived at its decision without allowing al-Wefaq’s attorneys to present their defense.

Al-Wefaq is Bahrain’s single largest political society. It is a national pro-democracy movement, and as such Bahrain’s government has long targeted its members. In 2011, during a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, US President Barack Obama urged the government of Bahrain to engage with al-Wefaq. “America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc -- the Wifaq -- to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people.”

“The international community and the United States need to vocally oppose the Bahraini government's suspension of al-Wefaq,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “It is a clear sign of the Bahraini government disregarding the political and human rights of its citizens,” he continued.

The suspension of al-Wefaq appears to be just one part of a recent government campaign magnifying its assault on dissent. Also today, the Ministry of Social Development closed the doors of two non-profit Shia religious and social organizations for allegedly illegally collecting money. Their social activities mainly included supporting orphans and the poor. Yesterday, the government arrested prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, charging him with spreading false news and insulting the integrity of the state over social media. Prior to that, Bahrain’s government imposed travel bans upon activists attempting to travel to Geneva, Switzerland to take part in the 32nd Session of the Human Rights Council. One week ago, Bahrain’s Court of Appeals increased the sentence against al-Wefaq’s Secretary-General, Sheikh Ali Salman, from four to nine years in prison.

Hugh Ali, the Executive Director of Justice Human Rights Organization, stated, “This most recent attack on the civil liberties of the people of Bahrain is troubling and indicative of a growing culture of impunity that seems to pervade the government of the Kingdom.” He added, “This action would see the people deprived of their main official channel of voicing their concerns; it is disconcerting and must be addressed by members of the international community.”

Al-Wefaq and its members have been the subjects of ongoing judicial harassment. The government suspended the society in October 2014, a month ahead of Bahrain’s first General Elections since the 2011 Arab Spring. In 2015, former MP Sayed Jameel Kadhem received a six month prison term and Wefaq member Majeed Milad received a two-year sentence, both on charges related to their speech. In 2013, the government arrested al-Wefaq’s Deputy Secretary General, Khalil al-Marzooq, on charges related to his exercise of free expression. Al-Marzooq was at the time prominently involved in the ongoing National Dialogue towards political reconciliation; the government arresting him caused it to collapse.

"Bahrain is bulldozing its civil society and is making a mockery of their ally the UK, who welcomed Bahrain's 'commitment to reform' just two weeks ago. Bahrain is only reforming itself into a state of silence and terror," said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD. On a visit to Bahrain at the end of May, Philip Hammond welcomed Bahrain's "commitment to reform", on the same day that an appeals court increased Al Wefaq's leader's prison sentence by more than double.

We, the undersigned NGOs, call upon the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to publicly condemn the Bahraini government’s suspension of al-Wefaq and targeting of the political opposition. The current situation in Bahrain has moved beyond quiet diplomacy. International voices must denounce the government of Bahrain’s actions and urge it to respect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. 

 

Signed,

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)

Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)

Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)

European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)

Justice Human Rights Organisation (JHRO)

 

Updates: Arrest and Detention of BCHR's President Nabeel Rajab

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