Bahrain: Dreams of reform crushed 10 years after uprising

Ten years after Bahrain’s popular uprising, systemic injustice has intensified and political repression targeting dissidents, human rights defenders, clerics and independent civil society have effectively shut any space for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression or peaceful activism, said Amnesty International today.

Mass protests in 2011 were fueled by mounting discontent over the state’s authoritarianism, sectarianism in government employment and benefits, and refusal to provide accountability for torture and arbitrary detention. Yet ten years on, the Bahraini government continues to ignore key recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an independent panel commissioned by the King in response to international concern over the suppression of the 2011 protests.

“Since 2011, the only structural changes Bahrain has seen have been for the worse, as opposition parties have been outlawed, the only independent news outlet has been shut down, and new laws have further closed the space for political participation. The protest leaders of 2011 continue to languish in grim prison conditions, and human rights including the right to freedom of expression are routinely trampled on,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International's Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Bahraini state has crushed the hopes and expectations raised by the mass protests of 10 years ago, reacting with a brutal crackdown over the subsequent decade that has been facilitated by the shameful silence of Bahrain’s Western allies, especially the UK and the US.”

Inspired in part by similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, starting 14 February 2011, tens of thousands of Bahraini citizens gathered at Pearl Roundabout in Manama’s financial district, where protesters set up camp for several weeks. The Bahraini government responded with a brutal crackdown and called in a Saudi-led intervention force from the neighboring states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report found that between February and April, at least 19 individuals were killed by the authorities, eight of them due to excessive use of force by security forces, and five others due to torture. Thousands were arrested, BICI also recorded, including protest leaders and opposition figures who remain in prison to this day after grossly unfair trials.

Since 2011, the only structural changes Bahrain has seen have been for the worse, as opposition parties have been outlawed, the only independent news outlet has been shut down, and new laws have further closed the space for political participation.
Lynn Maalouf

The BICI report issued in November 2011 also made recommendations including prompt investigation of all allegations of maltreatment by independent forensic experts, with the burden of proof on the state to show its compliance with law; removal of the national security intelligence agency from the process of domestic law enforcement; relaxation of censorship; and allowing the political opposition access to the state-controlled media. Yet ten years later, none of these recommendations have been implemented by the Bahraini authorities, in violation of their obligations under international human rights law.

Ongoing repression

Bahrain’s approach to critics since 2011 is exemplified by its treatment of Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the now-banned al-Wefaq, which was the largest legal opposition party. He was first imprisoned for his critical political speech in 2014, had his sentence doubled in 2016, then was given a life sentence in 2018 for joining mediation attempts during the uprising. Bahraini authorities described his participation in Qatari-mediated talks, in which Bahrain’s government itself participated, as “spying” for Qatar.

We urge the authorities to reverse the terrible course of the past 10 years by adopting the full and effective implementation of all the recommendations in the BICI report, and for the immediate and unconditional release of those imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their human rights, and for all the charges against them to be immediately dropped.
Lynn Maalouf

The second major opposition party, the non-sectarian Wa’ad, has also been banned, and its former head Ebrahim Sharif served five years in prison for his role in supporting the protests in 2011.

Since 2016 especially, dissenters – including political activists and leaders, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, Shi’a clerics, and peaceful protesters – have faced growing repression, including threats, summons, travel bans, arrests, interrogations, and prison sentences.

The Pearl Roundabout, which came to be a unifying symbol of the hopes of national renewal in February 2011, was bulldozed and paved over once the uprising had been quashed in March 2011.

“The fate of Pearl Roundabout symbolizes the Bahraini government’s attempt to suppress and erase even the memory of the protests. What was once a site of peaceful assembly, hope and progress is now just concrete and asphalt,” said Lynn Maalouf.

“We urge the authorities to reverse the terrible course of the past 10 years by adopting the full and effective implementation of all the recommendations in the BICI report, and for the immediate and unconditional release of those imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their human rights, and for all the charges against them to be immediately dropped.”