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Digital Rights Derailed in Bahrain: BCHR Releases Report on Restricting and Criminalizing of freedoms online

Today, 31 August 2016, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) published a new report entitled “Digital Rights Derailed in Bahrain”, which examines and discusses the measures taken by the Bahraini authorities to tighten their grip on the Internet and increase surveillance of content published online as well as the ongoing prosecution and detention of Internet users.

read full report here

Since the advent of the Internet in the country in 1995, civil society activists and opposition figures have used it for their activities, such as communications and advocacy. Particularly during and since the 2011 pro-democracy movement, social media platforms have gained widespread popularity. Nowadays, Bahrain is the country with the highest Internet penetration in the Middle East and North Africa region; however, it is also the country in which people feel the least safe to express their opinion, criticize the government or talk about politics.

According to the report’s findings, since 2012, Bahrain’s courts have collectively sentenced at least 40 Internet users to more than 842 months in prison for exercising their right to free expression on the Internet and independent social media. As of August 2016, at least 17 Internet users remain in prison, including BCHR’s President Nabeel Rajab, who is the first person in Bahrain to be tried for “retweets” and now faces up to 15 years in prison. Indeed, from putting bloggers on military trials in 2011, to prosecuting them for whatsapp messages and satirical online content, the reports shows how the Bahraini courts are devoted to passing the harshest sentences to silence the last remaining critical voices online.  

Additionally, the report documents five incidents of Internet shutdown or disruption witnessed in Bahrain since 2011, as a regular practice by the government to limit data flow around critical events. The latest of these incidents is still going for over two months in the village of Duraz, impacting over 20,000 residences of the area.

Also in 2016, the reports details how authorities have introduced new restrictive laws and regulations to limit the content published online, including a regulation to restrict newspapers’ usage of video reporting online, as well as to completely ban live broadcasting, and another regulation to force Internet service providers to use a unified filtering system that should aid the government’s efforts to censor the Internet. With the current situation of hundreds of websites blocked, including BCHR’s own website, the report’s findings reveal that Bahrain is misusing terms like “fighting terrorism” to block any website that is critical to the government’s views.

After detaining most of the critical voices, including political leaders, and locking  human rights defenders inside the country with travel bans, and successfully controlling the traditional press, the Internet has become the latest target by the government,” said BCHR’s Vice-President Said Yousef Al-Muhafdah. “The government wants to shut down the last window for people’s voices and place a complete blackout on Bahrain, so the Internet becomes a tool for sharing photos of your dinner, not more.

In “Digital Rights Derailed in Bahrain”, BCHR outlines how Bahrain’s regulations and consequent actions are in direct violation of international covenants, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression over any platform. 

The report starts with an analysis of the existing and newly introduced legislation and regulatory bodies, then shows how these instruments are used to increase the government's influence over Internet users, how filtering mechanisms work, how information is manipulated and how dissenting individuals and organisations are targeted. Furthermore, “Digital Rights Derailed in Bahrain” gives extensive insight into the personal story and fate of many Internet users and social media activists, who fell victim to the state authority's surveillance apparatus. The report concludes with various recommendations for the Bahraini government as well as the international community on how to achieve change and ensure freedom of expression in Bahrain.

The report is sponsored by IFEX, the global network for freedom of expression, of which BCHR is a member. Read full report here

The report will be launched during the “Opinions are not crimes” event, organized by BCHR together with Global Copenhagen (VerdensKulturCentret) at Nørre Alle 7, 2200 Copenhagen N, Denmark, starting at 18.00 and ending at 20.00. We would be pleased if you attend the event!

 

For more information please contact:

Elena Mocanu

International Office Manager

elena.mocanu@bahrainrights.org

Travel ban against human rights defender Nedal Al-Salman

On 29 August 2016, human rights defender Ms Nedal Al-Salman was banned from travelling to Doha from Bahrain International Airport.
Nedal Al-Salman is the Head of International Relations and Women & Children's Rights Advocacy at Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and active in the promotion of women’s rights in Bahrain.

The human rights defender was travelling to Doha on 29 August 2016 on her way to Geneva to participate in several meetings at the United Nations Human Rights Council, when she was informed by officials at Bahrain International Airport that the Public Prosecution had ordered a travel ban against her. The human rights defender was not formally notified of this order nor its reasons.

 

Read full statement here.

Bahrain: Alarming clampdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and movement

Since May 2016 Bahrain has seen an alarming intensification in the crackdown on the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and movement, particularly against the political opposition and those critical of the authorities. This is Amnesty International's written statement to the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council (13 – 30 September 2016)

 

Read the full statement here.

Bahrain's al-Wefaq opposition appeals dissolution ruling: Wefaq official

Bahrain's main opposition al-Wefaq has appealed against an administrative court ruling last month that dissolved the group and found it guilty of fostering terrorism, a leading Wefaq official said on Tuesday.

The court decision to dissolve al-Wefaq was part of a wider government crackdown on an opposition mainly comprised of Shi'ite Muslims demanding reforms and a bigger say in running the Western-allied Gulf Arab state.

 

Read article here.

Frequent Target: BCHR’s Human Rights Defenders Subject to Continuous Governmental Reprisals

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) is deeply concerned over the continued targeting of its members. As of now, all the public figures of BCHR inside Bahrain are banned from leaving the country, some are detained or/and prosecuted.

In the run-up to the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held in Geneva, the government of Bahrain, once more, has taken measures to hinder the work of human rights defenders and members of BCHR by imposing travel bans on them and preventing them from leaving Bahrain. Such actions are another step in a series of measures undertaken by the Bahraini authorities throughout the past months to disturb BCHR work and to impede our international advocacy efforts.

In its most recent attempt to hamper BCHR’s work, the government of Bahrain imposed a travel ban on Nedal Al-Salman, BCHR’s Head of International Relations, on 29 August 2016. Based on an order by the public prosecution, she reported that she was not allowed to leave the country from the Bahrain International Airport. Al-Salman intended to travel to Geneva to participate in the UNHRC’s 33rd session, particularly in order to voice concerns about and draw attention to the recent and already several months-long government crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society members in Bahrain.

On 23 August 2016, BCHR’s documentation team member, Hussain Radhi, was not permitted to leave Bahrain. He was informed by officials at the airport that the travel ban was imposed based on an order by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) order. When Radhi approached public prosecution to request the removal of the travel ban, his request was rejected and he was informed there is a case against him over remarks he made on Twitter, alleged to be "spreading false news and inciting hatred against the regime." The authorities have not officially informed Radhi of the case before nor he was questioned over these charges.

This is not the first time Radhi has been prevented from traveling. On 12 June 2016, the authorities prevented him from leaving the country to participate in the UNHRC’s 32nd Session in Geneva. Last year, Radhi was tried for illegal gathering, and was eventually acquitted.

On 22 August 2016, Enas Oun, head of BCHR’s Monitoring and Documentation Section, was stopped by Bahraini authorities at Bahrain International Airport, while on her way to a human rights workshop in Tunisia. The authorities informed her that she cannot travel based on an order issued by the CID on the previous day.

The Bahraini authorities arrested BCHR’s president Nabeel Rajab on 13 June 2016. They began a trial against him related to charges concerning remarks he made on Twitter about torture in Bahrain’s Jau Prison and the war in Yemen. He awaits trial on 5 September 2016.

Rajab is suffering poor detention conditions  since his arrest. His health has deteriorated as a result. He has been transported to the hospital several times. Most recently, on 25 August 2016, he suffered from shortness of breath and chest pain. This is not Rajab’s first arrest; he has been repeatedly arrested since 2011 and was detained for a total of two years between 2012 and 2015 in violation of his right to freedom of expression. Prior to his arrest, Rajab was arbitrarily prevented from traveling since 2014.

Through its efforts to unveil abuses and raise awareness, BCHR has become a frequent target of government repression. The authorities dissolved BCHR in November 2004 following a speech by human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, President of BCHR at the time, in which he criticized the prime minister. Since 2010, there was not a single year where at least one of BCHR’s leadership members was not in prison. Moreover, BCHR’s Vice-President Said Yousef Al-Muhafdah was forced to seek exile in Germany after he became a target of arbitrary arrest for his human rights work. BCHR website is blocked in Bahrain and alternative links are frequently blocked to disallow locals from reaching the human rights data published by BCHR.

The clampdown and travel restrictions placed on activists and human rights defenders have included: Ahmed Al-Safar and Ebtisam Al-Saegh of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights, lawyer Mohammed Al-Tajer, Isa Al-Ghayeb, director of Lualua Center for Human Rights, and others who prefer to remain anonymous.

BCHR believes that by enforcing travel bans and prosecuting human rights defenders, the authorities are attempting to prevent all human rights work and cover up the human rights violations in the country. The measures are in direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Bahrain is a signatory. Article 12(2) of the ICCPR states that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his [or her] own,” while Article 19 guarantees the right to free expression.

In view of the abovementioned, BCHR calls upon the government of Bahrain to:

  • Ensure the right to freedom of movement guaranteed through the ICCPR and Bahrain’s constitution by withdrawing all currently imposed travel bans in order to allow human rights defender to travel freely;
  • Facilitate cooperation with UN bodies and refrain from any actions that might interfere with the work of human rights defenders;
  • Immediately release all human rights defenders and political prisoners, including Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who are detained for expressing their opinions; and
  • Ensure the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech in Bahrain, as guaranteed through the ICCPR, and refrain from any acts of reprisal based on the right to free expression.

 

On the Occasion of the 33rd Session Five Bahraini NGOs Dispatch Joint Letter to UN Human Rights Council Members

With the third UPR Process commencing in 2017, and the UN Human Rights Council’s 33rd Session starting in September, five NGOs have articulated a joint letter intended for UNHRC members regarding the pressing issues facing Bahrain.

SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, Bahrain Forum for Human Rights, Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Bahraini German Organization for Human Rights and Democracy, and European Bahraini Organization for Human Rights, all inputted their concerns that they have identified and verified, in the joint letter.

The letter stressed that since the second UPR review in 2012, the Government of Bahrain has committed to introduce reforms recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011, whilst opting to carry out no meaningful reforms, and also accepting recommendations but choosing not to properly implement them. Instead, repression remains the norm, and torture and mistreatment of human rights activists is rife. The signatory organizations confirmed their fear that there is a whitewashing of the true picture of what is happening in Bahrain. Not only is information about the real situation being withheld, but also those who do dare to speak out are being punished for doing so, and face torture, mistreatment and imprisonment.

Continue reading here.

Enforced Disappearance: A Persistent Violation in Bahrain

On the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared, held annually on 30 August,

the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) recalls the numerous cases of those Bahraini citizens who fell victim to enforced disappearance carried out by their own government, and raise concerns about the neglect of basic human rights by Bahraini authorities.

Deriving from the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which entered into force in 2010 and has so far been signed by 96 and ratified by 52 states, this international day of commemoration was created to draw attention to all individuals taken and imprisoned at places and under poor conditions unknown to their relatives and/or legal representatives. The day is also known as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

According to the Convention, “‘enforced disappearance’ is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

The act of enforced disappearance directly violates many basic human rights, including the right to liberty, right to security and dignity, right to recognition before the law, right to fair trial, and the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel and inhumane treatment.

Even though Bahrain did not sign the Convention and it is thus not directly applicable to Bahrain, the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearances are preserved through three other international treaties that Bahrain has ratified: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the UN Convention against Torture (CAT).

Nevertheless, enforced disappearance is still one of the recurring strategies of the Bahraini authorities as a mean of intimidation of civil society and deterring political opponents and activists from protesting violations and demanding their rights, affecting not only the victims themselves but the community as a whole.

Victims of enforced disappearances are deprived of their liberty. Enforced disappearance occurs usually directly following an the arrest. This period of disappearance may last from a couple of hours up to several weeks. While in custody, they are deprived of their right to due process, not allowed to contact a lawyer or their families. They are frequently subjected to torture, ill-treatment and threats in order to make them sign confessions, with the consequence that victims are tried in unjust trials and subsequently sentenced to harsh and disproportionate sentences, including  the death penalty. Even if they are eventually freed, the physical and psychological scars stay with them for the rest of their lives. The victims’ families also suffer immense anguish and are subjected to emotional despair, fearing and concerned over the wellbeing of their loved ones.

Two disturbing and shocking cases of how Bahraini authorities neglect their international obligations and commitments and carry out enforced disappearances, torture and coerced confessions are the ones of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Ali Moosa, who are both allegedly connected to a deadly bomb explosion, in which an officer and two policemen were killed in Al-Deir village on 14 February 2014.

A few weeks after the explosion, Mohammed Ramadan was arrested without a warrant and without informing his family of his arrest. He was detained at the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation (CID), where he was subjected to sustained ill-treatment and torture for more than four days until he eventually signed a false confession stating that he was involved in the explosion in Al-Dair. Ramadan claims he was then informed that the government knew he was innocent, but that his participation in protests made him a “traitor” and therefore he supposedly deserved to be sentenced for his crimes. When Ramadan explained to a judge that he was forced to sign the false confession, he was brought to Riffa Police station for 13 days, where he was reportedly tortured once again.

Similar to Ramadan, Husain Ali Moosa was arrested and kept in custody. He claimed that CID security officials hung him from the ceiling for three days while beating him with batons. CID officers threatened to harm his relatives and fabricate cases against them, and additionally threatened to rape his sisters. In order to stop his torture, Moosa confessed to being involved in the Al-Dair bombing. Three days later, when he recanted his confession in front of the public prosecutor, he was again sent to CID and allegedly tortured for three months.

Eventually, on 29 December 2014, Bahraini courts sentenced Ramadan and Moosa to death for their alleged involvement in the bomb explosion. Despite an Urgency Resolution of the European Parliament and international appeals, highlighting the lack of due process and impartiality present during the trials, the verdict was eventually upheld by the Bahraini High Appeals Court on 31 May 2016. Ramadan has exhausted all routes of the judicial appeals process on his case. Both Ramadan and Moosa are currently awaiting execution, which solely requires authorization by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and could be carried out at any time.

These are just two cases that exemplify the worst case scenario: the death penalty. BCHR, however, continues to receive and observe similar cases from other victims of enforced disappearance. Bahrain also continuously appears in the annual reports of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) since 2011 and has been criticised in WGEID’s 108th session document for providing merely “insufficient” information regarding the clarification of the urgent cases of two men allegedly arrested by state agents in September and November 2015.

In the light of the abovementioned, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights is deeply concerned that Ramadan’s and Moosa’s prosecutions relied substantially on evidence obtained under torture and are in direct violation of Bahrain’s obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture. We therefore, exhort the international community to speak out against any form of human rights abuses, and further urge the Bahraini government to implement its commitments under international human rights law. Moreover, we call upon the government of Bahrain to:

  • Halt the application of the death penalty against Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Ali Moosa and vacate their sentences and to unconditionally release all political prisoners;
  • Conduct a full investigation into all credible allegations of torture, as mandated by the Convention Against Torture;
  • Implement international regulations against the use of torture as a means to extract false confessions;
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture; and
  • Sign and ratify  the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and transfer respective regulations into national law.

 

US: Bahrain - International Religious Freedom Report for 2015

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.

Read full report here

Read PDF version here 

British police criticised for lack of transparency in Bahrain training deal

British police have been criticised for refusing to release details of an international deal to train security officials from Bahrain, a country accused of a litany of human rights abuses.

Human rights campaigners have said the College of Policing (CoP), which sets standards for UK officers and offers worldwide training courses, should be compelled to explain their work in countries with poor records on civil liberties.

The concerns come less than two months after MPs criticised the “totally unacceptable” opacity around the college’s provision of training to Saudi Arabia.

Read full article here

 

Bahrain: Justice denied for two years as Khalil Al-Halwachi is imprisoned without a verdict

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) condemns the Bahraini government’s practice of holding detainees for a prolonged and indefinite period prior to being sentenced and convicted of any official charge. This is the case with Khalil Al-Halwachi, who has been detained for approximately two years without being sentenced, thus violating his right to due process.

Khalil Al-Halwachi (59 years old) was arrested on 3 September 2014 through a house raid by security forces. The security forces presented neither a search nor an arrest warrant. Security forces transported Al-Halwachi to the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID), where they allegedly subjected him to psychological torture and ill-treatment including keeping him in extremely low temperatures for hours at a time and preventing him from going to the toilet. Security forces then forced him to sign confessions while he was blindfolded.

The interrogation focused on the activities of AMAL political society and its founders, although the society has been closed down since 2012 and Al-Halwachi is no longer a member of the group.

At the public prosecution, the prosecutor interrogated Al-Halwachi without his lawyer, and charged him with alleged possession of a weapon. Security forces then transferred Al-Halwachi to the Dry Dock Detention Center. The authorities extended his detention three times under the Terrorism Law. After six months, on 22 March 2015, the authorities finally referred him to court. He made complaints about the ill-treatment he was subjected to with the ombudsman’s office, which transferred the case to the special investigation unit; but there was no outcome in Al-Halwachi’s case and he remains in detention during his trial.

Since the commencement of his trial in March 2015, the court has postponed it 17 times thus far. The court postponed the trial several times due to the absence of the prosecution’s witness. When the witness finally showed up, his answer to most of the questions was “I forgot.” The defense lawyers of Al-Halwachi and 16 other defendants in the case were not allowed to call defense witnesses. The last session he had was on 21 June 2016 and it was postponed to 19 September 2016.

Although Al-Halwachi has not been sentenced, prison authorities refuse to release him despite his deteriorating health, which includes repeated blood clotting episodes for which he is reportedly not getting proper medical care. He also has nerve damage, which caused paresthesia in his limbs, and has only gotten worse with his appalling prison conditions. He is currently isolated from other political detainees in ward 1 at Dry Dock Prison, apart from four political detainees with whom he had minimal contact, as they are not allowed to communicate with him.  

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bahrain acceded in 2006, requires state security forces to observe certain guidelines. Article 9 of the ICCPR states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention;” and that “anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgment.” Furthermore, Article 14 affirms the detainee’s right to a fair trial, as “everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”

Based on the above, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) calls on the government of Bahrain to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release Khalil Al-Halwachi and all detainees who are held over politically motivated charges;
  • End the practice of arbitrary arrest and detention;
  • End the practice of holding detainees for a long time before they are sentenced, as it violates their right to due process;
  • End the practice of torture as a means to extract confessions from detainees;
  • Bring to justice those who commit violations, including those who carry out and supervise abuses; and
  • Abide by international legislation, including conventions to which Bahrain is a signatory.