11 Dec, 2014

JOINT STATEMENT: NGOs Express Concern over UK Announcement of Military Expansion in Bahrain

On 5 December 2014, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) announced that a new defence arrangement will establish a permanent naval base for the United Kingdom in Bahrain. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and Stop the War Coalition express deep concern over the agreement and urge the United Kingdom to reconsider establishing a base in a country with severe human rights violations.

“The £15M project, which will largely be paid for by the Bahraini government, is clearly a reward for the UK’s silence on human rights abuses in Bahrain,” said Nabeel Rajab, Director of BCHR.

Following the announcement, protesters took to the streets in Bahrain to criticize British Ambassador Iain Lindsay and ask for his resignation.

“This agreement signals to the Bahrain people that the UK does not take into consideration severe human rights abuses when deciding foreign policy,” said Sayed Alwadaei, Advocacy Director at BIRD.

In London, 12 Members of Parliament signed an Early Day Motion opposing the new defence agreement. Earlier this year, the Parliaments Arms Export Committee listed Bahrain as a country of concern. In 2013, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) recommended that the FCO designate Bahrain as a “Country of Concern” in its 2014 Human Rights Report. The FAC also noted that British support for Bahrain, both in diplomatic and military terms, should not be conditioned on respect for human rights.

“The UK government should take into account the legitimate concerns of its own parliament, not to mention the international community, and revaluate the proposed agreement,” urged ADHRB’s Executive Director Husain Abdulla.

In its 2014 assessment of the FCOs human rights work, the FAC condemned the decision not to list Bahrain as a country of concern arguing: “We see little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights, and we believe that the FCO should have bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as a country of concern”.

“Bahrain is a clear example of arms sales and the UK's military relationships being prioritized ahead of human rights and democracy,” said CAAT’s Sarah Waldron. “There needs to be an embargo on all arms sales to the regime and an end to the extensive political support it receives."

The aforementioned organizations call on to the UK Ministry of Defence to suspend its defence agreement with Bahrain until violations of human rights in Bahrain are addressed and substantive political reform is accomplished. 


11 Dec, 2014

Human Rights First: Additional Prison Sentences Handed Down to Bahraini Human Rights Defender Zainab Al Khawaja

In response to today’s news that Bahraini human rights activist Zainab Al Khawaja has been sentenced to 16 months in prison in addition to last week’s three-year sentence, Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley issued the following statement:

“These verdicts come at a time when Bahrain faces growing instability with reports of more bombings in Bahrain. Sending Zainab to prison for longer doesn’t make Bahrain any safer or bring a political solution any closer. These court decisions set the country back, encouraging polarization and frustration. Jailing her on these charges is the wrong response, deepening Bahrain’s political crisis, and the sentences make the world wonder if the regime is serious about reform, or is just vindictive.”

A Bahraini court issued today’s sentences – one of 12 months, another of four months – which are due to begin immediately. Last week, Al Khawaja was sentenced to three years in prison for tearing up a picture of the king during a court hearing on October 14. Al Khawaja’s family has stated that last week's sentence is not due to be implemented before an appeal occurs in June 2015.

Al Khawaja, who attended Beloit University in Wisconsin, spent most of 2013 in prison for her peaceful protests against the regime. Al Khawaja’s father, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, is one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defenders. He is currently serving a life sentence for his peaceful part in 2011 protests. Her sister, Maryam Al Khawaja, was sentenced last week in absentia to a year in prison on charges of assaulting police officers when she arrived in Bahrain in August, a charge she denies.

Many peaceful opposition leaders jailed during the 2011 protests remain in prison, and Bahrain continues to jail those peacefully expressing their views including those who criticize the ruling monarchy on Twitter. Human Rights First continues to urge the U.S. government to publicly press the Bahraini regime to release its political prisoners. Human Rights First urges the U.S. government to send observers to the trials of human rights activists and to state publicly whether proceedings meet international legal standards.


11 Dec, 2014

Civicus Condemns Draconian Sentencing Of Two Bahraini Activists

Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, is dismayed over the politically motivated sentences handed down this week to Bahraini human rights activists Maryam al-Khawaja and Zainab al-Khawaja. CIVICUS urges the government of Bahrain to end its relentless campaign to silence dissent in the country and release all human rights defenders imprisoned for exercising their legitimate democratic rights. 

On 4 December, Zainab al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 3,000 Bahraini Dinar (approx. 8,000 USD) on charges of “publically insulting the King” for ripping a picture of King Hamad of Bahrain.  Zainab was nearly 9 months pregnant when she was arrested and imprisoned earlier this year while appearing before the High Criminal Court of Appeal in the capital, Manama. 

Zainab, who is the sister of Maryam al-Khawaja and the daughter of imprisoned civil society activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has repeatedly been subjected to judicial persecution for her human rights advocacy. Zanaib was released in February 2014 after spending nearly a year in prison on a number of politically motivated charges related to her peaceful advocacy work on human and democratic rights in Bahrain.

Zainab’s conviction on 4 December was preceded by the sentencing on 1 December of Maryam al-Khawaja. She was sentenced to one year in prison in absentia on specious charges of “assaulting police officers”. Maryam, who is the head of advocacy for the Gulf Center for Human Rights, was initially arrested at Manama airport on August 30th while attempting to visit her father who has been imprisoned in Bahrain since 2011.

Maryam, who spent nearly three weeks in prison following her arrest, decided to boycott her trial due to what she described as the severe politicization of the Bahraini judiciary and human rights violations she experienced during her interrogation following her arrest.

The sentencing of Maryam al-Khawaja and Zainab al-Khawaja is emblematic of the Bahraini authorities’ unabated judicial persecution of dissenters. According to national watchdog groups, tens of thousands of protestors, journalists, and civil society activists have been arrested since mass protests began in 2011. Thousands of these activists reportedly remain in prison today.

CIVICUS has repeatedly appealed to the Bahraini authorities to respect civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly. CIVICUS reiterates its call to the government of Bahrain to end its persecution of peaceful dissenters by immediately releasing all human right defenders in the country. 

11 Dec, 2014

Index: Bahrain: Zainab Al-Khawaja Sentenced To Additional 16 Months

Bahraini human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja was handed an additional 16 month sentence for insulting a public official, according to her sister Maryam Al-Khawaja, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. 

Last week, Zainab Al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3,000 Bahraini Dinar (£5,000). She was on trial for tearing up a photo of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa at an October court date where she faced charges connected to previous rights campaigning. This comes only a week after she gave birth to her second child.

In a tweet, Maryam Al-Khawaja criticised the United Kingdom’s decision to move forward with a military base in Bahrain. “UK basically gave Bahrain regime a free pass to do pretty much anything they want,” she wrote.

The Al-Khawaja family have been heavily involved in Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement, and have been continuously targeted by authorities in the constitutional monarchy.

Al-Khawaja’s father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has been serving a life sentence since 2011 for the role he played in the country’s ongoing protest movement which started that year. Her sister Maryam Al-Khawaja boycotted the recent court hearing which saw her sentenced to one year in prison on what is widely acknowledged to be trumped up charges.


11 Dec, 2014

Telesur: Human Rights Activists Condemn New UK Military Base in Bahrain

Members of parliament, as well as Bahraini activists, are protesting the move as it supports a government known for its human rights abuses.

Britain's decision to set up a US$23 million permanent naval base in Bahrain has been slammed by activist groups for its human rights implications.

The deal will see Britain's first base in the Middle East for more than 40 years, and, according to U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, will cement a U.K. military presence in the Gulf for many years to come.

“The expansion of Britain’s footprint builds upon our 30-year track record of Gulf patrols and is just one example of our growing partnership with Gulf partners to tackle shared strategic and regional threats,” he said.

The move has been met with criticism from anti-war organizations, who condemn the hypocrisy of the U.K. for associating with a tyrannical regime and reasserting itself as a colonial power.

Prominent parliamentarians, including Jeremy Corbyn, who also chairs the Stop the War Coalition, and Caroline Lucas, submitted a motion to the U.K. parliament condemning the move. It says politicians are "appalled that Britain has signed an agreement with the government of Bahrain."

The motion labels the move an insult "to all those who have suffered human rights abuses by the government of Bahrain,” which “will serve to send a message that the UK Government is not interested in justice," and warns that this "increased British military presence is likely to exacerbate tensions in the region."

10 Dec, 2014

Bahrain: Human Rights Defenders Zainab and Maryam Al-Khawaja Sentenced To Prison in Separate Trials

On 01 December, Maryam Al-Khawaja was sentenced in absentia to one year imprisonment in Bahrain on charges related to an alleged assault on a police officer in Bahrain’s airport. Ms. Al-Khawaja had travelled to Bahrain in an attempt to visit her father, imprisoned human rights defender and founder of the BCHR, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who went on hunger strike in August of 2014. Following a dramatic and rapid decline in his condition, Ms. Al-Khawaja travelled to Bahrain to visit him, only to be detained on arrival in the airport on 30 August.

Maryam Al-Khawaja was held in prison for 19 days on charges of allegedly having ‘assaulting a police officer’. She was released while the investigation was ongoing, and no travel ban was imposed upon her. Ms. Al-Khawaja chose to boycott the trial because she does not believe in the independence of Bahrain’s judiciary. The BCHR believes that Maryam Al-Khawaja was wrongfully arrested and targeted due to her work in exposing human rights violations in Bahrain.

Zainab Al-Khawaja, who is also a daughter of Adbulhadi Al-Khawaja and an older sister to Maryam Al-Khawaja was sentenced to prison two recent occasions; 04 December and 09 December. On 04 December, Ms. Al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for ‘insulting the King’ as well as issued fine of 3,000 Dinars (approx. $8,000 USD). These charges were related to Ms. Al-Khawaja exercising her right to peaceful freedom of expression where she tore up a photo of the King. The court set bail for 100 Dinars (approx. $265 USD) for putting the sentence on hold until the appeal trial outcome, which she paid. Ms. Al-Khawaja has appealed the case, and the sentence will therefore only be implemented if the court rules against her at this time. Ms. Al-Khawaja was not present at the trial.

Two of the charges against Ms. Al-Khawaja on 09 December were related to ‘destroying government property’ while she was detained in 2012, where she ripped up a picture of Bahrain’s King. Lastly, she was charged with ‘insulting a police officer’. These charges, and more than a dozen other charges against Ms. Al-Khawaja represent a pattern of the Bahraini government’s attack on freedom of expression. This pattern of targeting human rights activists is also a part of a wider crackdown against journalists, bloggers, photographers and activists to exercise their freedom of expression in Bahrain. Ms. Al-Khawaja was sentenced to one year and four months imprisonment, issued by the court of appeal, which upheld the sentence. This verdict will be implemented immediately, and she can be arrested at any moment.

Zainab Al-Khawaja gave birth to a healthy baby boy, her second child, on 27 November.

The BCHR calls on the Government of Bahrain to

  • Immediately and unconditionally overturn all convictions of Zainab Al-Khawaja related to freedom of expression;
  • Immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against Zainab Al-Khawaja related to freedom of expression;
  • Immediately and unconditionally overturn the conviction of Maryam Al-Khawaja; and
  • Release all political prisoners and end the systematic targeting of individuals for exercising their right to peaceful freedom of expression.
1 Dec, 2014

Press Release: The Enablers

The Manama Dialogue will celebrate its 10th anniversary when it opens in Bahrain on Friday, December 5th, and as the international community comes together to discuss the present state, and future of, security in the Gulf.

It is important to hear from the people of Bahrain in order to fully understand how the international community’s security policies, and trade agreements, are affecting the situation on the ground.

In the coming days, we will investigate how the international community has
enabled the government to suppress the peaceful pro-democracy movement and to let serious human rights violations continue relating to freedom of expression,
freedom of assembly and the right to life - through the sale of traditional arms, tear gas, shotgun pellets, and public relations services.

In the coming days participants of the conference will be shielded off in a section of the Ritz-Carlton, but we believe that the people of Bahrain and the Gulf in general should be part of the conversation when talking about security in the region, therefore we are inviting the public to be part of that conversation.

During this time of reflection, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, when the 10th annual Manama Dialogue commences, interested parties will have gotten an insight into the awful methods that the Bahraini Government continue to use to suppress its population - but more importantly, who the ENABLERS are to make the atrocities continue to happen. 

To view the press release as a .png file, please click here.

19 Nov, 2014

France24: Video Depicts Bahrain Police Abuse - But Will Inquiry Lead Anywhere?

A video recently emerged showing a Bahraini police officer mistreating a prisoner and showering him with insults, while making references to the man’s Shiite faith. The video, posted on Monday to YouTube, quickly went viral – to the extent that the Bahraini authorities were forced to respond. The day after its release, the Interior Ministry announced the suspension of the police officers involved and the opening of an investigation. According to our Observer, it's all a smokescreen.

The images were posted by activists of the February 14 movement, the group behind the protests against the Sunni monarchy headed by King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa. The movement is now regarded by Bahraini authorities as a terrorist organisation.

The video takes place in a police car, with a prisoner sitting on the back seat between two police officers in uniform, his hands tied behind his back and his head covered by his shirt. It is clear he is Shiite due to the police’s mention of "zawaj al-mut'a", literally meaning "pleasure marriage", the name given by Shiite Muslims to “temporary marriage”. The marriage is agreed between potential spouses for a limited period of time and generally sealed by a religious authority. This form of union, which is still practiced by a number of Shiites, is rejected by a large majority of Sunnis.

The policeman sitting in the seat next to the driver (whose face is hidden) asks the prisoner if he can make a "pleasure marriage" with his sister. "Do you agree?" yells the police officer. The prisoner nods his head as the officer continues: "And a Sunni, can she have a zawaj al-mut'a?". The prisoner remains silent, so the police officer gets angry: "Do not even say ‘Sunni’, you son of a b***!". The officer proceeds to punch the prisoner on the head and back while the other policemen try to calm him down.

The Interior Ministry said on Tuesday via its Twitter account that an investigation had been launched and that the police officers involved in the video had been suspended from their duties.

"However, Said Yousif Al-muhafdah, vice-president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, believes it is certain there will be no legal consequences for the police officers.

Unfortunately, the police officers who commit abuse or even acts of torture are spared due to a culture of impunity. Since 2011, there have been 7 or 8 proven cases of abuse, which came to light thanks to leaked videos.

Each time, it's the same scenario: the authorities announce the opening of an investigation, but the investigations go nowhere and very rarely result in sanctions. The ministry’s announcements are only intended to calm public opinion and sell a semblance of democracy abroad.

In the rare cases where there is a conviction, the sentences are eventually reduced. In May 2013, a police officer sentenced to 7 years of prison for shooting an unarmed demonstrator dead saw his sentence reduced to 6 months.

That same year, the court acquitted two police officers who killed a demonstrator by shooting him with buckshot pellets. The court found that the two officers had not fired with the intent to kill, and were therefore free to go [Editor’s Note: In May 2014, an unarmed 14-year-old protestor was also killed by buckshot pellets during a demonstration].

In April 2012, police officers were involved in a case involving thugs damaging a grocery store owned by Shiites. The scene was recorded by the store’s security camera, but it did not lead to an investigation, even though the faces of the police officers were clearly identifiable in the video.

This situation will not change until Bahrain has effective institutions and most notably an independent judicial system. To achieve that would require genuine democratic reform, and that is still a far-off dream."

The organisation Human Rights Watch issued a report last May denouncing impunity and judicial bias in the kingdom. "In Bahrain, a police officer who kills a protester in cold blood or beats a detainee to death might face a sentence of six months or maybe two years, while peacefully calling for the country to become a republic will get you life in prison,” the report states.

Bahrain is a Shiite-majority country (about 75 percent of the population), ruled by an exclusively Sunni monarchy and government. Since February 2011, members of the Shiite community who feel discriminated against regularly go into the streets in protest. In May, the International Federation for Human Rights estimated that at least 89 people had been killed since the start of the protests.


19 Nov, 2014

The Guardian: It’s Dangerous To Be So Cosy With The Gulf’s Autocrats

Why is the west still so close to reactionary monarchies in the Middle East when all the evidence suggests they’re on their way out?

A few days ago, the American ambassador in Beirut said he was deeply concerned about the “paralysis of Lebanon’s political institutions”, and called for new elections to be held as soon as possible.

This prompted a wry comment from the blogger known as The Angry Arab: “I would like the US ambassador in Saudi Arabia to call for elections ‘as soon as possible’.”

The Angry Arab has a point. There are some countries where it’s OK for western diplomats to call for elections, and other countries where they wouldn’t dream of saying such a thing.

The Gulf monarchies include some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes but so long as they can be regarded as “useful” friends, western governments let them off lightly. If they are criticised at all, it’s done cautiously … and preferably in private.

This timidity is most apparent in the contrasting treatment of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran can be criticised vigorously – and deservedly so – but in terms of translating archaic religious ideas into government policies, our friends in Saudi Arabia are at least as bad. Internationally, Saudi Arabia has also managed to spread its baleful religious influence wider than Iran has done.

Of course, it would be unfair to say that Saudi political institutions are paralysed, as they are in Lebanon – because Saudi Arabia, unlike Lebanon, doesn’t have political institutions in any meaningful sense. Its pseudo-parliament is appointed by the king, and political parties are not allowed. It did (rather nervously) hold municipal elections in 2005 and 2011. in which only men were allowed to vote, and for only half the seats. As a precaution against male voters electing the wrong candidates, the other half were to be filled by royal appointment.

Being nice to Gulf autocrats certainly brings some benefits for western countries: we buy their oil and they spend the money on buying our weaponry. They also ingratiate themselves with the west by performing “useful” services from time to time – most recently when some of them joined the military alliance against Isis.

For the last half-century or so, this has formed the basis of British and American policy in the Gulf and the benefits it brings have blinded our governments to the long-term cost, which is potentially very high.

The danger in ignoring the negative side of the Gulf/west relationship has become increasingly apparent since the Arab uprisings broke out almost four years ago. Fearful of popular demands for accountable government, Gulf states have mostly aligned themselves with the counter-revolutionary side.

When protesters challenged the monarchy in Bahrain, Gulf rulers sent in troops to prop up the king. They sabotaged the Yemeni revolution with a “transition” deal that allowed the ex-president Saleh to stay in the country causing mayhem, and they are now backing Sisi’s new dictatorship in Egypt – which can only create more problems for the future.

In more general ways, Gulf states (along with other ancien regimes in the Middle East) are fuelling turmoil in the region rather than alleviating it. “The cultural, educational and religious stagnation evident in so much of the Middle East and North Africa,” a recent report by the Soufan security intelligence group said, “does not encourage any new way of thinking about the future beyond a desire to return to the past and start again.”

And the report warned:

”So long as governance in so many countries fails to meet the expectations of the people, there will be a steady flow of hopeful recruits to the ranks of the Islamic State; and many others who lack the means or opportunity to travel may be tempted to follow its directives within their own countries.”

Unless these regimes change their ways radically and quickly, they will eventually be swept away. Almost all of them are incapable of such reform, so we have to consider them doomed.

This is something western policymakers can’t afford to simply brush aside. They need to take into account not only the problems these regimes are causing but the likelihood that they will not be in power for many more years – and act accordingly. For a start, that means becoming a lot more circumspect than at present in our dealings with them.

Britain’s current relations with Bahrain, for example, are bafflingly cosy – even to the extent of removing an ambassador who upset the Bahraini authorities by meeting some members of the opposition, and replacing him with one who is much more amenable.

Britain also relies heavily on arms sales to the Middle East, on the dangerous assumption that the regimes buying them will still be in power to take delivery, and for as long after that as the weapons remain usable.

In 2012 David Cameron jubilantly announced a £2.5bn order for 20 warplanes from Oman, which he said would support thousands of jobs in the UK.

But deliveries are not due to start until 2017, and neither Cameron nor anyone else can be sure that Sultan Qaboos, the ailing tyrant who seized the Omani throne with British help 44 years ago, will be there to receive them – or who may eventually end up using them.


19 Nov, 2014

The Guardian: We Are The Giant Review – Courage Under Fire

Worthy documentary tribute to Arab Spring protesters focuses on non-violent methods but fails to tackle a chaotic present

Greg Barker’s documentary is a heartfelt, if historically disjointed, tribute to individuals who took part in the Arab Spring; these dignified Davids took on brutal Goliaths in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain. Some of these dictators went, and some have clung on, luxuriating in the support of the American and British governments.

It is impossible not to be moved by the protesters’ passionate belief in liberty, but also, I think, not to worry about what has succeeded the Arab Spring: a troubling, complex situation from which this film largely averts its gaze. The key question is where on the spectrum between violence and non-violence protests should position themselves.

The film vehemently argues for non-violence, although Barker’s interviewees seem to be under the impression that non-violence was the ANC’s approach. (Not exactly.) One Syrian protester makes a very powerful point: that non-violence was the only way to preserve a grassroots popular movement: “With militarisation comes the dependence on outsiders.” A heartfelt portrait of courage.