Today, 23 August 2017, a group of international NGOs, including Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain and Amnesty International, sent a letter to the Bahraini government to request information concerning Sayed Alawi Hussain al-Alawi. Sayed Alawi is a victim of enforced disappearance; the Bahraini authorities have forcibly disappeared him for more than nine months. His family has no knowledge of his location, charges, or physical well-being. In the letter, the NGOs urge the Bahraini government to immediately disclose the location and charges against Sayed Alawi and to provide him with access to his family, legal representation, and medical treatment. The NGOs call for the release of Sayed Alawi unless the Bahraini government has charged him with a recognizable criminal offence.
Mohamed Ebrahim Ali is a 16-year-old high school student in Bahrain. At 6:00 in the morning on 22 July 2017, Bahraini security officers forced their way into his family’s home, searched it from top to bottom, and took Mohamed away. Though no one has been able to visit him since he was detained, all available evidence indicates that he has been tortured in detention.
Mohamed lives with his parents and sisters in the village of al-Budaiya. His father was away traveling on the day the security forces knocked on their door. His mother asked them not to enter as there was no man in the home, but they disregarded her. The government agents who entered the home were masked, wore civilian clothing, could not be identified by badges or insignia, and did not present any warrant – all of which conforms to the standard practice of unlawful home raids conducted by security forces in Bahrain. One officer, however, had a jacket bearing the emblem of the Ministry of Interior, the agency that oversees the kingdom’s police and is responsible for the overwhelming majority of abusive detentions that ADHRB has documented over the years.
Because the security forces did not present a warrant or explain who or what they were looking for, it is impossible to know why they took Mohamed after searching the home and finding nothing unusual. Mohamed’s mother protested and asked why they were taking her son, but received no answer. They drove away with him in an unmarked civilian vehicle.
To date, neither Mohamed’s family nor the attorney they have hired to represent him have received any explanation for the arrest. What little is known about his situation is as follows. He was initially taken to the police station in the north of Hamad town, where he was held for a week until, on 30 July, he was brought before the Office of Public Prosecution (OPP). After his appearance before the OPP, Mohamed called his family and told them he was being transferred to Dry Dock Detention Center. Though Mohamed’s lawyer had asked to be informed when his client was presented to the prosecutor – and had sent a formal letter making this request to every department of the OPP – the defense counsel was never contacted.
Aside from its inconsistency with Article 14.3(b) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain has acceded, the OPP’s behavior also violates Bahrain’s own domestic law. Article 146 of Bahrain’s Code of Criminal Procedure states that a suspect has the “right to contact his defense at any time.” Nevertheless, the prosecutor’s office ordered Mohamed held for 30 days pending investigation. Though it remains unclear what in fact is being investigated, the length of what Bahraini law refers to as “preventive detention” (Arabic:al-ḥabs al-iḥtiyāṭī) indicates that Mohamed will be charged with “terrorism” or “national security” crimes. (The period of pre-indictment detention is limited to one week for ordinary crimes.) It has become increasingly routine for Bahraini authorities to charge human rights defenders and political activists – or even ordinary citizens detained by mistake or at random – with baseless terror offenses, and the government’s broad list of “national security” crimes includes “unlawful assembly” (Art. 178 of the Penal Code), i.e., public protest.
Other detainees who have seen Mohamed in custody have reported that he was tortured into giving a confession, and that his face is visibly swollen from being beaten. Without access by defense counsel or independent monitors, further details remain unknown.
ADHRB has raised Mohamed’s case before several UN special procedures offices. As noted, Bahrain’s conduct is contrary to treaty law it has endorsed, as well as to its own domestic law. With no evidence presented against Mohamed – and, indeed, no known charges or even accusations raised against him – the presumption of innocence stands. ADHRB therefore calls on Bahrain to release him immediately and to conduct its security operations according to due process of law, which would mean a lawful arrest authorized by warrant and based on concrete criminal charges. We further urge international bodies and states holding influence with Bahrain – such as its allies in Washington and London – to press the government to reform the repressive “counterterrorism” laws and institutional practices that facilitate human rights abuses.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the warrant for journalist Nazeeha Saeed’s arrest that was issued in Bahrain on 14 August in connection with her conviction in May for “working without a permit” and the fine she was ordered to pay when the conviction was upheld in July.
“We urge the authorities to cancel the warrant for Bahraini journalist Nazeeha Saeed’s arrest,” said Alexandra El Khazen, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “They have no grounds for persecuting her in this way because her lawyer appealed against her conviction to the Court of Cassation on 10 August.”
The former correspondent of France 24 and Radio Monte-Carlo Doualiya who is currently abroad, Saeed received a call from the Southern Region police on 14 August notifying her that a warrant had been issued for her arrest.
Her lawyer, Hameed Al-Mullah, asked the judge concerned to rescind the arrest warrant on the grounds that an appeal has been lodged with the Court of Cassation. The judge rejected the request on 20 August.
The lower court fined Saeed 1,000 dinars (2,320 euros) when it convicted her on 25 May of working without a permit. The information ministry began the proceedings against Saeed in July 2016, after refusing to renew her press accreditation the previous month, three months after she submitted her renewal request.
It was the first time in more than ten years that the authorities refused to renew her accreditation. They also banned her from travelling abroad, without providing any explanation.
At least five Bahraini journalists working for international media outlets such as Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press, France 24 and Reuters have been refused accreditation renewal, although Saeed is the only one to have been prosecuted.
Human rights defenders often confront obstacles that make their work difficult. This is especially true in Bahrain, where the Sunni monarchy and government have been bent on silencing all opposition ever since the Arab Spring when tens of thousands of Bahraini citizens protested for democratic reform.
In recent months, the nation’s only independent news outlet, Al Wasat, was shuttered and prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to two years in prison for “spreading fake news”.
The families of activists suffer along with their loved ones and are often targeted with official harassment: detention, loss of employment, beatings and harassment. Each case is an individual story of a struggle for freedom.
A result of actions
Members of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei’s family have been harassed and detained due to his ongoing campaigning for democracy and human rights in Bahrain. Most recently hismother-in-law and brother-in-law were detained while Alwadaei attended the United Nations Human Rights Council in March.
Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, is no stranger to detention: he was arrested twice in 2011 and served a six-month sentence in a Bahraini jail. He found asylum in the UK in July 2012. In February 2015, Alwadaei was among 72 Bahraini citizens to be stripped of their citizenship.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei with his son Yousif (Photo: Moosa Satrawi)
In October 2016, Alwadaei’s wife and infant son Yousif also faced official harassment as they tried to leave Bahrain to join Alwadaei in the UK. His wife was arrested at the airport and held overnight, during which time she was ill-treated. It was not until a few months later that she and her son were able to leave the country.
Other members Alwadaei’s family, including his sister, have also faced interrogations.
When asked how he continues campaigning under these circumstances, Alwadaei told index: “We can only get through this by sticking together and staying strong. It’s important to have a supportive family. The potential for arrest and torture is something they know and have to be willing to sacrifice.”
He added that he is balancing his efforts to get his mother-in-law out of prison while continuing his work in activism. “It’s hard but this is the right thing to do.”
“The oppression or torture aims to do one thing: to break your will because you’re not ready for the consequences,” Alwadaei said. “This is the state they want to leave you in. They want you to be broken and this is why we keep going.”
A life-long struggle
Maryam Al-Khawaja has been preparing for and participating in the struggle for human rights her entire life.
As a young child growing up in Denmark, she and her three sisters attended an English-speaking school, but the Al-Khawaja family knew they were only in the country temporarily. Her mother and father had been exiled for speaking out in Bahrain.
At a very young age, she remembers her parents asking her and her siblings before bed: “What have you done today to make the world a better place?” She told Index that her father wouldn’t help them answer the question because he wanted them to think about how the world could be. She remembers dinner conversations alive with politics and philosophical discussion about whether having false hope or no hope was better.
Around the 7th or 8th grade, Al-Khawaja knew wanted to be like her father when she grew up; she wanted to be an activist.
Maryam Al-Khawaja (Photo: David Coscia for Index on Censorship)
Al-Khawaja was 14 when her family returned to Bahrain in 2001. She recalls thinking her family was ready to take on the challenges and that the people of Bahrain would be ready to fight with them. But that was not the case. The country was tired of conflict and believed that the king’s promised reforms would be implemented. At the same time, activists were not popular among ordinary Bahrainis.
At college she said she was criticised by her classmates for speaking her mind about the state of their country, which caused her to lose interest in her father’s reform work. At the time, she asked him: “Why are you trying to change a situation for people who don’t want to change it for themselves?” His response was simple: “Someday you will understand.”
It wasn’t until 2011 during the Arab Spring protests that she developed a newfound respect for her father and was ashamed of herself for ever doubting him. She admits growing up in Denmark made her think fighting for human rights would be easy. When her father, along with 12 other leaders of the uprising, was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, she found that a life of campaigning isn’t so effortless.
During our conversation, Al-Khawaja jumped off the phone for a few minutes to take a call from her father. She had not heard from him in over three weeks and said their phone calls are always random and typically short as it is normal for the line to be cut if anything about the Bahrain government or any activist’s work is mentioned.
Until recently, her mother and sisters in Bahrain had not seen her father since February as their requests to visit have continually been denied. Al-Khawaja has not seen her father since 2014 as there are multiple fabricated charges against her that would mean imprisonment if she returned to the country.
Since her father’s imprisonment, Al-Khawaja and her older sister Zainab have been active in the push for human rights and freedom of speech in Bahrain. She says her father has two main characteristics as an activist: a fierce advocate and a fiery speaker. She explained that she and Zainab are the two parts to that whole: Al-Khawaja as the advocate and Zainab as the speaker.
Al-Khawaja said the work of her father and her sister Zainab hasbeen tough for her two younger sisters. One sister had the highest scores in nursing school in Bahrain and graduation seemed to promise a job. But the paperwork from the government granting her access to work never came. She’s been waiting nearly eight years without a job. Al-Khawaja said it’s difficult for her family members when they’re in jail as they have to “take care of us when we cannot take care of ourselves”.
Her mother also felt the effects of the family member’s work when she was fired from her private school teaching job where she was the head of guidance.
A cause for celebrity status never wanted
Adam Rajab realised when he was young that his father Nabeel wasn’t like other dads. “I was so confused ‘why does my father work all day, while other fathers have certain working hours?,’” he told Index.
During a holiday he asked his father to take a break for a day. His father answered: “My colleagues are in prison. I can’t stop my work because they are suffering behind bars.”
In 2006, when Rajab was nine years old, he vividly recalls seeing his father come home bleeding from his head with a swollen and bruised back. “I was shocked and terrified but my father continued protesting like nothing had happened,” he said. “This was terrifying to me but the determination and fearlessness I saw in him really inspired me.”
In 2011 Nabeel Rajab’s work became well known. He appeared on TV and was the first activist to use social media to support the revolution then sweeping Bahrain. “Wherever we went, people would stop him and start taking pictures,” Adam said, adding that the strange situation was a shock to the family. “It started to become difficult because we couldn’t enjoy a private life like we used to.”
Nabeel Rajab with his son Adam Rajab
As a leader of the movement, Rajab’s father has become a face leaders around the world recognise but do little about. For years he has been in and out of jail. On 10 July 2017 he was sentenced to two years in prison for “broadcasting fake news”.
Although no one in the family has been arrested, his mother was harassed at her government job and then fired. Rajab and his sister have also faced harassment in school.
Rajab and his father have a very close relationship so the imprisonment has not been easy. “I haven’t seen him for more than a year now and he faces more charges which probably means more prison sentences,” Rajab said. “I find it difficult to enjoy anything while he is locked up in a cell and deprived of life, but as he taught me, the spirit is always up.”
Rajab wants his father to free and for them to live like any other ordinary family, but this does not take away from how proud he is or the strength of his belief in his father’s cause.
An open ended sentence
It’s difficult to imagine the emotions these activists and their families go through on a daily basis. A psychologist from the Refer Self Counselling Psychology Practice explained to Index that having a family member with a sentence with a sure release date is one case but when trials or release dates are postponed time and time again as they are in Bahrain, it is much more difficult. “We are rational problem solvers but not good with the unpredictable.”
The psychologist explained the situation in Bahrain is unlike what most with family members behind bars will ever experience. False hope puts an even greater emotional strain on loved ones.
On 15 August 2017, the United States (US) Department of State launched its 2016 International Religious Freedom Report. The report “provides a detailed and factual overview of the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories, and documents reports of violations and abuses committed by governments, terrorist groups, and individuals.” Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the release of this year’s International Religious Freedom report, which finds the Government of Bahrain continued to systematically discriminate against its majority Shia Muslim population throughout 2016. We additionally call on the Bahraini government to address the State Department’s concerns and take concrete efforts to safeguard the right to free belief.
“We welcome the US State Department’s work to document the systematic religious rights violations carried out by the Government of Bahrain,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “It is particularly encouraging that Secretary Tillerson used his public platform to call out such severe infringements on religious freedom in the kingdom, and to urge the authorities to end discrimination against the marginalized Shia community. However, we urge the State Department to follow through on its report’s recommendations by applying further pressure on the Bahraini authorities to fully implement the BICI reforms, including the integration of the security forces and the elimination of sectarian discrimination.”
ADHRB echoes the State Department’s assessment that systematic and widespread discrimination against the Shia majority population is ongoing and that religious freedom remains restricted in Bahrain. ADHRB additionally urges the Bahraini government to abide by its obligations under international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), by combatting prejudice and ensuring the right to free belief for all.
Please see below for full analysis of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report.
To mark the launch of the report, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered remarks that specifically highlighted the current situation in Bahrain: “The [Bahraini] government continued to detain and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. Members of the Shia community there continue to report ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Bahrain must stop discrimination against the Shia communities.”
Following on Secretary Tillerson’s remarks, the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report on Bahrain documented severe forms of discrimination in the kingdom, including arbitrary denaturalization, excessive restrictions religious practices and speech, and the targeted judicial harassment of Shia faith leader and political figures. The State Department detailed how, in June 2016, the Bahraini authorities arbitrarily denaturalized the country’s leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, charging him and two other clerics, Mirza al-Dirazi and Sheikh Hussain al-Mahroos, with alleged money laundering the following month. The report notes that these charges stemmed from religious practices and that the government was targeting Sheikh Qassim for collecting money in accordance with a Shia custom known as khums, whereby money is gathered and distributed by religious leaders to members of the community in need of charitable giving. This echoes the State Department’s comments after Sheikh Qassim’s denaturalization was first announced, when it issued a statement saying it was “alarmed by the Government of Bahrain’s decision to revoke the citizenship of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim.”
The report also noted that the Bahraini government took action to suppress a peaceful sit-in that was organized in Sheikh Qassim’s hometown of Diraz to protest his denaturalization. “The authorities set up checkpoints to control access to and egress from the village and surrounding neighborhoods, which they continued to restrict through the end of the year.” These measures specifically prevented Shia clerics and worshipers from accessing the village’s mosques to lead prayers or attend services. The report omitted, however, that the Bahraini government has additionally imposed an ongoing internet blackout in Diraz, prohibiting residents in the Shia-majority village from accessing phone and internet services in the area.
The State Department further documented that “police had summoned over 73 individuals, including 44 clerics for question,” although there are discrepancies with these reports: the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) annual report, for example, cited even higher rates of judicial harassment, finding that between June 2016 and February 2017, the Bahraini government had “interrogated, charged, and/or sentenced at least 80 Shi’a clerics, imposing travel bans against several.” Still, the State Department correctly found that prominent Shia clerics faced imprisonment over their involvement with nonviolent assemblies, including Sayed Majeed al-Mishaal, who was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly calling for public gatherings in Diraz. The report cities the cases of several clerics were also summoned for alleged “illegal gathering” in Diraz, such as Sheikh Ali Humaidan and Sheikh Maytham al-Salman, who was held overnight without access to clean clothing or showers during his interrogation. The authorities additionally refused Sheikh Maytham’s request to have a lawyer present and ordered him to strip himself of his turban and robes, a move intended to “insult and intimidate a Shia cleric.” While the report notes that the Bahraini authorities allowed Shia groups to hold processions for Ashura, it also found that the government restricted access to those processions, especially in prayer halls in Diraz. USCIRF reported that at least five Shia clerics were interrogated in relation to speeches given during Ashura commemorations, and ADHRB hasdocumented repeated government interference in the gatherings.
Additionally, the State Department found that Shia detainees are particularly vulnerable to “intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment by prison guards because of their religion.” Such abuse by prison guards “at times led to coerced confessions.” At Bahrain’s Jau Prison, the report documented prisoners’ allegations that guards do not allow inmates to practice their faith freely and that officials arbitrarily prohibit religious practices for violating “prison safety.” ADHRB’s information corroborates these reports of abuse in Bahrain’s detention centers, including the targeted harassment of inmates for their religious affiliation. However, though the State Department writes that the Ministry of Interior’s Office of the Ombudsman should address “the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion,” ADHRB has consistently found that the institution lacks appropriate independence from the government, fails to remedy complaints, and has even put complainants at risk of reprisal.
Aggravating these recent reports of religious freedom violations, the report also finds that Bahraini authorities have not eliminated long-standing forms of anti-Shia discrimination, including systematic employment bias and demographic engineering. “The government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens.” These policies directly contravene Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendation 1722(e) that calls for the integration of all members of the community into the Bahraini security forces, which the Bahraini government claims to have implemented. In addition to the community’s near total exclusion from the security forces, Bahraini Shia also face significant discrimination when seeking positions such as judges, teachers, and higher echelons of the civil service.
The State Department additionally highlighted several legislative measures that have infringed on religious liberty in 2016. The May 2016 amendment to Article 5 of the Political Societies Law specifically prohibits religious figures from participating in political societies and discussing politics during sermons, for example, among other restrictions. The State Department reported that “some Shia activists stated [the amendment] was meant target their political organizations.” ADHRB finds that authorities have used such legislation to target Shia activists and the predominantly Shia political societies. In June 2016, a month after the amendment, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJ) launched legal proceedings that ultimately led to the arbitrary dissolution of the country’s largest opposition political society, Al-Wefaq. According to the State Department, such “actions divert Bahrain from dialogue necessary to ensure its security and stability” and that the actions are “not consistent with a commitment to… pursuing unfulfilled reforms.”
Despite its documentation of many severe infringements on religious freedom in Bahrain, the State Department report did fail to mention the Bahraini government’s move to implement a new policy that will discriminate against women participating in hajj. In August 2016, the MOJ announced the unprecedented policy that will require women under the age of 45 to be accompanied by a male guardian in order to participate in the religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Bahraini authorities have attributed the decision to a new regulation in Saudi Arabia, where the male guardianship system originated. Prominent Bahraini religious leaders like Sheikh Maytham al-Salman have criticized the policy, arguing that “prohibiting women from performing the rituals of the hajj without a male guardian literally means prohibiting single women, divorced women and women who do not intend to or cannot have a male guardian during the pilgrimage of hajj from their worship rights.” The regulation is set to be implemented during the 2017 hajj season.
Salman Isa Salman is a 34-year-old Bahraini who is currently facing the death sentence. On 27 December 2014, without presentation of a warrant, security forces beat and detained him during a house raid. They then transported him to a farm and beat him again while he was handcuffed. Bahraini television, which is closely controlled by the state, ran images of Salman shortly after the detention describing him as a “terrorist” and praising the security forces for apprehending him.
After the beatings, the detaining forces transferred Salman to the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) for interrogation. Officers there accused him of killing a member of the security forces, and tortured him until he signed a prepared confession. They beat him until he fainted, electrocuted him, and left him naked in a cold room for six hours. Salman’s cousin had been detained alongside him, and the security officers tortured the cousin as well in order to coerce Salman to sign.
Next the Bahraini state brought him before the Office of Public Prosecution, without any legal representative present, so the prosecutor could formally charge him based on the CID’s “investigation.” On 29 April 2015, a Bahraini court convicted Salman of “terrorism” and sentenced him to death. The state has held him at Jau prison pending execution of the death sentence.
The guards at Jau subjected Salman to further abuse, preventing him from praying and reading the Qur’an. Witnesses who saw Salman in early May 2015 report that he had bruises on his face and the backs and palms of his hands, a swollen ear, and had partially lost his hearing. It is obvious, given the circumstances, that the authorities holding him – presumably the guards at Jau – beat him again at some point around the time he was transferred to the prison.
Salman has gone through multiple stages of appeal on his death sentence, and final disposition of the case is still pending. In any event, Salman’s confessions were falsified, obtained illegally, and signed under torture. Bahraini authorities at every level of the criminal-justice system have denied him due process, making his trial and sentence unlawful. ADHRB calls for annulment of the conviction and sentencing based on this tainted “evidence,” and for any colorable charges against Salman to be tried via due process in proceedings which can be readily monitored by international observers. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bahrain is a party, forbids torture and arbitrary detention and provides for important procedural guarantees which were not upheld in this case. If Bahraini authorities cannot mount a credible trial meeting these international standards, they are obligated to release Salman under their treaty commitments.