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Bahrain 2016/2017

The authorities tightened restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and association and continued to curtail the right to peaceful assembly. They detained and charged several human rights defenders and banned others from travelling abroad, dissolved the main opposition group and stripped more than 80 people of their Bahraini citizenship, forcibly expelling four. Opposition leaders continued to be imprisoned as prisoners of conscience. There were new reports of torture and other ill-treatment and unfair trials. Women continued to be discriminated against in law and practice. Migrant workers and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people faced discrimination. There were no new death sentences or executions.

Background

In March, Bahrain became a state party to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

In May, Bahrain’s National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) received a “B” status from the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions as it was not fully compliant with the Paris Principles. One of the reasons given by the Committee was that the NIHR decision-making board included government representatives, undermining its independence.

Also in May, the government signed a trade and economic agreement with Switzerland containing two non-legally binding memorandums on the treatment of prisoners and on women’s rights in Bahrain. In September the government of the USA blocked sales of fighter jets and related equipment to Bahrain pending human rights improvements.

Bahrain remained part of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition engaged in armed conflict in Yemen (see Yemen entry).

The government did not allow access to representatives from international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, throughout the year.

Freedom of expression

The authorities continued to severely restrict freedom of expression, arresting and prosecuting human rights defenders and religious activists for using public gatherings or social media to criticize the government, the Saudi Arabian authorities and air strikes by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen. Opposition leaders sentenced in previous years for their peaceful opposition remained held as prisoners of conscience.

In February a court sentenced Ebrahim Sharif, former Secretary General of the National Democratic Action Society (Waad), to a one-year prison term after convicting him of “incitement to hatred and contempt of the regime”. He was released in July after completing his sentence; his one-year prison term was upheld in November. Also in November the authorities charged him with “inciting hatred against the regime” for comments he made in a media interview about the visit to Bahrain of Prince Charles from the UK. The charges were dropped the same month.

In March, the authorities detained activist Zainab al-Khawaja to serve sentences totalling 37 months following her conviction on various charges, including tearing pictures of the King. Her imprisonment was widely condemned. The authorities released her in May on “humanitarian grounds”; she subsequently left Bahrain.

In April a criminal court imposed a one-year prison term on activist Dr Sa’eed Mothaher Habib al-Samahiji for criticizing the Saudi Arabian authorities on Twitter.

In May an appeals court increased the 2015 prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the main opposition group al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, from four to nine years. The court had overturned his acquittal of the charge of inciting change of the political system “by force, threats and other illegal means”. In October the Court of Cassation rejected this decision and returned the case to the appeals court, which upheld its initial nine-year prison sentence in December.

In June, human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was arrested and charged with “spreading false information and rumours with the aim of discrediting the state” during televised interviews. In July, his trial opened in relation to his Twitter posts in 2015 alleging torture in Jaw Prison and criticizing Saudi-led aerial bombing in Yemen. In December, the court ordered his release on bail while his trial was ongoing but he was immediately re-arrested for investigation into the initial charge for which he had been arrested in June. He also faced separate prosecutions for comments he made in a New York Times article entitled “Letter from a Bahraini Jail” and in a letter published in Le Monde newspaper.

The authorities continued to restrict the media. In February the Minister of Information prohibited media outlets from employing journalists deemed to “insult” Bahrain or other Gulf or Arab states.

Freedom of association

The authorities tightened restrictions on freedom of association, continuing to imprison some leaders of al-Wefaq and other opposition parties and harassing others by summoning them several times for interrogation.

The authorities suspended al-Wefaq, seized its assets in June and obtained a court order for its dissolution in July for alleged breaches of the Law on Political Associations.

Freedom of assembly

The authorities maintained their ban on all public gatherings in the capital, Manama. Frequent protests, including some which turned violent, continued in Shi’a villages, particularly following the enforced dissolution of al-Wefaq. The security forces used excessive force to disperse some protests, firing shotgun pellets and tear gas, and arresting scores of religious activists and other protesters, including children. At least one police officer and one member of the public died in protest-related violence.

In January, the security forces forcibly dispersed people protesting against the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. Police used tear gas and shotgun pellets and arrested protesters.

In June, security forces blocked access into Duraz village for all but village residents after protesters gathered and began a sit-in protest outside the home of Shi’a Sheikh Issa Qassem after the authorities revoked his Bahraini citizenship. As the sit-in continued, the authorities arrested or summoned scores of protesters for questioning, including at least 70 Shi’a clerics and several human rights defenders, charging some with “illegal gathering”. Courts sentenced 11 Shi’a clerics to one- or two-year prison terms on the same charge.

Freedom of movement

The authorities imposed administrative bans that prevented at least 30 human rights defenders and other critics from travelling abroad, including to attend meetings of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. At least 12 of them were later charged, including with “illegal gathering”.

Deprivation of nationality and forced expulsions

The authorities obtained court orders that stripped at least 80 people convicted of terrorism-related offences of their Bahraini nationality, rendering many of them stateless. In June the Ministry of the Interior also revoked the nationality of Sheikh Issa Qassem, al-Wefaq’s spiritual leader; he had not been convicted of any offence. The authorities forcibly expelled four of those whose citizenship they had withdrawn, including human rights lawyer Taimoor Karimi. An appeal court ruled in March that prisoner of conscience Ibrahim Karimi should be forcibly expelled from Bahrain when he completes his 25-month prison sentence in 2018.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture and other ill-treatment continued to be reported, particularly of people suspected of terrorism and other offences under interrogation by the police Criminal Investigations Directorate. Unfair trials continued; courts continued to rely on allegedly coerced “confessions” to convict defendants on terrorism-related charges.

Prisoners held at Dry Dock Prison and Jaw Prison complained of ill-treatment, including solitary confinement and inadequate medical care.

Impunity

Impunity continued largely to prevail although the Ombudsman of the Ministry of the Interior and Special Investigations Unit (SIU) within the Public Prosecution Office continued to investigate alleged human rights violations by the security forces. Several low-ranking members of the security forces were prosecuted, but no senior officers.

The SIU said it received at least 225 complaints and referred 11 members of the security forces for trial on assault charges during the year. At least four members of the security forces were convicted and at least 12 acquitted during the year. In January the Court of Appeal increased from two to seven years the prison sentences imposed on two police officers for causing the death in custody of Ali Issa Ibrahim al-Saqer in 2011. In March the Court sentenced a police officer to three years’ imprisonment for the unlawful killing of Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon in 2014, overturning his earlier acquittal.

In February the Court of Appeal confirmed the acquittal of a police officer whose shooting of a peaceful protester at close range in January 2015 was captured on film, ruling that there was no evidence confirming the victim’s presence or any injuries found, despite the video footage. In March the Court overturned the convictions of three police officers sentenced in 2015 for causing the death in custody of Hassan Majeed al-Shaikh in November 2014, and reduced the sentences of three other officers from five to two years.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

The authorities continued to prosecute and imprison people for same-sex sexual conduct under “debauchery” and “obscenity” provisions of the Penal Code.

In January and February, the courts rejected applications by three Bahrainis who had undergone sex-change operations abroad to change their gender in official documents.

In September a court sentenced 28 men to prison terms of between six months and two years after convicting them on “debauchery” and “obscenity” charges for attending a private party at which some wore female clothes. In November, an appeal court reduced their sentences to between one and three months.

Women’s rights

Women faced discrimination in law and practice. In May, Parliament agreed to abolish Article 353 of the Penal Code, which had allowed rapists to avoid a prison sentence if their victim consented to marry them.

Migrant workers’ rights

Migrant workers continued to face exploitation and abuse by employers. In July, more than 2,000 migrant workers participated in a peaceful march to protest against non-payment of their salaries by employers.

Death penalty

The death penalty remained in force. The courts did not hand down new death sentences but the Court of Cassation confirmed two and overturned four death sentences passed in previous years, three of which were later re-imposed by the court of appeal. There were no executions.

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Get the Amnesty International Report 2016/17