The government launched a large-scale campaign to clamp down on all forms of dissent by repressing the rights to freedom of expression and association of human rights defenders and government critics. This campaign was marked by travel bans; the arrest, interrogation and arbitrary detention of human rights defenders; the dissolution of the opposition group Waad and the closure of the newspaper al-Wasat; as well as the continued imprisonment of opposition leaders. Scores of people were sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials. Authorities stripped at least 150 people of their Bahraini nationality, rendering the majority stateless. Mass protests were met with excessive force, resulting in the deaths of five men and one child and the injury of hundreds. Executions resumed after a hiatus of nearly seven years.
Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt in severing ties with Qatar. Bahrain remained part of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition engaged in armed conflict in Yemen (see Yemen entry).
In January, Decree 1 of 2017 authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct arrests and interrogations in cases linked to “terrorist crimes”, reversing a Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendation. In April, the King reversed another such recommendation by ratifying a constitutional amendment that re-enabled military courts to try civilians. In December, six men were sentenced to death in the first trial of civilians by a military court, which had begun in October. In June, Bahrain’s lower house approved a decree ending retirement rights and benefits of those who had their citizenship revoked, or who lost or were granted foreign citizenship without permission.
In March, the US administration approved the sale to Bahrain of new F-16 fighter jets and upgrades for older jets, which under the previous US administration had been conditional on the improvement of human rights in Bahrain.
International NGOs, including Amnesty International, and journalists critical of Bahrain, were denied access to Bahrain throughout the year.
Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression remained severely restricted throughout the year. The authorities arrested, detained, interrogated and prosecuted human rights defenders, political activists and Shi’a clerics who expressed criticism of government policies, or criticism of Saudi Arabia or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The government announced that it would be illegal to express sympathy with Qatar following the severance of ties in June, and arrested and detained one lawyer on that basis. Human rights defenders and opposition leaders arbitrarily detained in previous years for their peaceful opposition remained held as prisoners of conscience.
In May, human rights defender Ebtisam al-Saegh was arrested and interrogated in NSA custody, during which she said she was tortured, including by being sexually assaulted. She was arrested again in July and remanded in custody for a further six months pending completion of the investigation. She was released in October without knowing the legal status of the case against her. In July, human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to two years in prison for “spreading false information and rumours with the aim of discrediting the state”. The sentence was upheld on appeal in November.
The media continued to be restricted and journalists were targeted. The only independent newspaper in Bahrain, al-Wasat, was temporarily suspended and then shut down after it reported on protests in Morocco. In May, journalist Nazeeha Saeed was convicted for working without renewing her press licence, issued by the Information Affairs Authority, and fined 1,000BD (USD2,650). The court of appeal upheld the fine in July.
Freedom of association
The authorities maintained undue restrictions on freedom of association. Leaders of al-Wefaq and other opposition parties remained in detention and political activists and members of opposition parties were harassed. Several political activists and members of opposition parties reported that they were threatened, tortured or otherwise ill-treated by NSA agents in May.
In February, the dissolution of al-Wefaq was upheld by the Court of Cassation. In March, the Minister of Justice filed a lawsuit against the secular opposition group Waad for violating the Law on Political Associations. In May, the High Administrative Court ordered the dissolution of Waad and the liquidation of its assets. In October the Appeal Court upheld the verdict.
Opposition leaders and prisoners of conscience Sheikh Ali Salman and Fadhel Abbas Mahdi Mohamed remained arbitrarily detained. In April, Sheikh Ali Salman’s prison sentence was reduced to four years; in November he was charged with spying for Qatar in 2011, which he denied, and at the end of the year his trial was ongoing. In March, former Secretary General of Waad, Ebrahim Sharif, was charged over a series of posts on Twitter, including an Amnesty International graphic and a tweet criticizing the lack of democracy in Bahrain.
Freedom of assembly
Protests remained banned in the capital, Manama, and the authorities used unnecessary and excessive force to disperse protests. Peaceful protesters continued to be arrested and detained on charges of “illegal gathering”. In January, mostly peaceful mass protests took place in 20 villages following the execution of three men. In Duraz, security forces used live ammunition and semi-automatic rifles, injuring hundreds, including Mustapha Hamdan, who later died of his wounds. In February, hundreds of protesters again took to the streets in several villages when the authorities refused to allow the funeral of three men who were killed by coastguard forces after escaping from Jaw prison a month earlier.
The authorities continued to restrict access to Duraz village until May, where a peaceful daily sit-in continued outside the home of Sheikh Isa Qassem, the spiritual leader of al-Wefaq. On 23 May, security forces entered Duraz with hundreds of armoured vehicles, beating protesters, firing tear gas from armoured vehicles or helicopters and firing birdshot. Four men and a 17-year-old child were killed.
In February, human rights defender Nader Abdulemam was arrested to serve a six-month sentence for participating in an “illegal gathering” and having called on people on Twitter to join a protest in Manama in January 2013. He was held as a prisoner of conscience until his release in June.
In May, the Court of Appeal reduced Dr Taha Derazi’s six-month prison sentence to three months for taking part in an “illegal gathering” in Duraz in July 2016. He was held as a prisoner of conscience until his release in August.
Freedom of movement
The authorities maintained administrative travel bans that prevented scores of human rights defenders and other critics from travelling abroad, including to attend meetings of the UN Human Rights Council. In April, days ahead of the UN UPR of Bahrain, 32 activists were summoned by the Public Prosecution. The majority were charged with “illegal gathering” and banned from travelling. Most bans were lifted in July, after the UPR had been conducted. Similar tactics were used in September ahead of the UN Human Rights Council session in which the outcome of the UPR on Bahrain was adopted.
Deprivation of nationality
Authorities obtained court orders to strip at least 150 people of their Bahraini nationality. The majority were effectively rendered stateless as they had no other nationality. No forced expulsions took place.
Torture and other ill-treatment
There continued to be reports of torture and other ill-treatment in custody, in particular of those interrogated about terrorism-related offences. In May alone, eight human rights defenders and political activists in NSA custody were reportedly tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Unfair trials continued and courts relied on allegedly coerced “confessions” to convict defendants on terrorism-related charges.
Reports of ill-treatment in Dry Dock prison and Jaw prison continued, including the use of prolonged solitary confinement and lack of adequate medical care. After the escape of 10 prisoners from Jaw prison in January, new arbitrary regulations were introduced, including that prisoners must remain locked in their cells for most of the day. Prisoners’ legs and ankles were shackled whenever they left their cells, including to go to the medical clinic. Eleven opposition activists who remained in prison, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, refused to attend medical appointments to protest the mandatory prison uniform, shackles and full body strip search required to attend the appointment. In March, the prison administration also reduced the length of family visits from one hour to 30 minutes and separated prisoners from visitors by a glass barrier.
Student Ali Mohamed Hakeem al-Arab reported that he was tortured throughout 26 days of interrogation in February and March, including by having his toenails pulled out, being subjected to electric shocks and beatings, and being forced to sign a “confession”. In May, Ebtisam al-Saegh and seven other peaceful critics reported that they were tortured and otherwise ill-treated in NSA custody. (See above, Freedom of expression.)
A climate of impunity persisted. The authorities continued to fail to hold senior officials accountable for torture and other human rights violations committed during and since the 2011 protests. No investigation or prosecution was known to have taken place into the deaths of six people, including one child, killed by security forces in Duraz between January and May 2017.
workers’ rights – migrant workers
Migrant workers continued to face exploitation. In March and June, migrant workers participated in marches to peacefully protest against unpaid salaries.
Bahrain resumed executions after a hiatus of nearly seven years, executing three Bahrainis in January. The courts continued to hand down death sentences for offences including murder and terrorism-related charges.