Bahrain: A troubled relationship

On Monday morning, a leading Bahraini human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested. On Tuesday, the Bahraini courts suspended Bahrain’s main political opposition party. The arrest and suspension immediately provoked the condemnation of a number of international human rights organisations.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regularly publishes a list of human rights priority countries. Human rights priority countries are “human rights trouble spots” where the FCO deems the UK has the ability to influence change. In 2014, Bahrain was not included in the last of priority countries. After significant criticism, including from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the FCO did include Bahrain on its 2015 list.

Despite its inclusion on the FCO’s human rights priority list, Bahrain remains a key UK trading ally. Only this week, for example, reports emerged that Bahrain is paying the bulk of the costs of the construction of a new Royal Navy base in its country.

This blog reviews the evidence behind human rights violations in Bahrain in three key areas: freedom of expression, torture and the rule of law.

Freedom of expression

The Bahraini Government claims that the country permits freedom of expression. For example, Bahraini ministers have claimed that Bahrain has one of the freest press industries in the world.

However a number of international observers have contradicted this claim. The Human Rights Watch 2015 report noted that King Hamad, the Bahraini head of state, ratified laws which significantly increase the sentences for individuals who are adjudged to have offended the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem. Such crimes now carry a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini dinars (£18,500). In addition, the report found that a number of photographers were arrested for carrying out professional activities. For example, Hussain Hubail, was sentenced by a court to a five-year prison term in April 2014 on charges that he used various social media accounts to “incite hatred of the regime,” promoted ignoring the law, and called for illegal demonstrations. The sentence was upheld in September 2015.

Similarly, Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report found that the Bahraini authorities “severely curtailed the rights to freedom of expression and association”. Amnesty offer the example of Nabeel Rajab who was arrested in April 2015 for posts on Twitter about the use of torture in Bahraini prisons and for criticising Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen. In May, an appeal court upheld his earlier six-month sentence for “publicly insulting official institutions”. Rajab was then re-arrested early Monday morning this week. The exact reasons for the re-arrest remain unclear.

Crucially, the FCO’s 2015 human rights report notes that “there are continued concerns regarding freedom of speech and expression and peaceful assembly”. Numerous rankings of press freedom also indicate that Bahrain heavily restricts freedom of expression. The Freedom of the Press Index 2015 - published by the nonpartisan US NGO, Freedom House - found that Bahrain ranked 84th of 97 countries for press freedom. Similarly, the 2016 World Press Freedom Index - published by Reporters without Borders - found that Bahrain ranked 162nd of 180 countries.

Torture

The Bahraini Government claims that it has significantly reduced the use of torture in the last 10 years. In 2014, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior published a report in which they denied the systemic use of torture by government.

This view is challenged by a number of international organisations. Human Rights Watch finds that torture of detainees continued, and worsened, in 2014. They report that individuals detained by the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) - a government agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminals - were routinely tortured. Detainees reported a range of torture methods used by the CID. These included electric shock, prolonged suspension in painful positions, severe beatings, threats to rape and kill, forced standing, exposure to extreme cold, and sexual abuse. They also note that Bahrain continues to use torture in its prisons.

Amnesty International found that torture and other forms of ill-treatment, remained routine, particularly within the CID. They report that police and other security officials frequently beat or otherwise abuse people when arresting them and transporting them to police stations. At Jaw Prison, one of Bahrain’s main prisons on the southeastern coast, detainees faced repeated beatings. They were also forced to sleep in tents. Following a disturbance at the prison in March 2015, prisoners were denied any communication with their families for several weeks.

The US Department of State human rights report concludes that the use of torture is widespread in Bahrain.

Rule of law

The Bahraini Government has argued that it fairly implements the rule of law. For example, it has stated that civil society institutions, human rights organizations, and media representatives are allowed to attend trials. However, Human Rights Watch reports only organisations which are sympathetic to the Government are offered such privileges.  

Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report finds that hundreds of Bahraini people were convicted in unfair trials on a number of charges such as rioting, illegal gathering or committing terrorism-related offences. Accordingly, many prosecutors in cases related to terrorism relied exclusively on the evidence of “confessions” which defendants claimed that interrogators had forced them to make under duress; some received death sentences.

Amnesty highlight the case of Abbas Jamil al-Samea’ and two other men who were sentenced to death in February 2015. The three defendants had been convicted of a bombing in March 2014. Amnesty states that, during the trial, the court failed to adequately pursue their allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by CID interrogators. The defendants were also denied access to their lawyers until their trial began; their lawyers were prevented from viewing the full case file, and their pleas to cross-examine prosecution witnesses were ignored.

Moreover, Amnesty also find that public officials often benefit from lenient sentences and frequent acquittals. For instance, in April 2015, a court acquitted a police officer of causing the death of Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon, who had been shot January 2014. The officer was jailed for only three months for shooting a man in the stomach who was accompanying Abbas.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch finds a number of examples of unfair trials. For example, in February 2016, a Bahraini court convicted the secretary general of the largest legally recognised opposition political party, which was suspended this week, of three speech-related crimes and jailed him for four years. Human Rights Watch states that the presiding judge prevented defense lawyers from utilising evidence which may have prevented his prosecution. For example, the judge refused to allow defense lawyers to play recordings of the secretary general’s speeches for which he was convicted. The judge stated that “the intent of them is to raise doubts about the substantiating evidence that has persuaded the court.”

Conclusion

Most international observers find that Bahrain commits systemic human rights violations. More worryingly, many observers find little evidence of Bahrain reducing the number, or severity, of its violations. Yet, a Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy report, published this week, claimed that the UK has become “an unconditional ally” of Bahrain

This has significant implications for the FCO. It is always extremely difficult to measure the impact of the FCO’s ‘soft’, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Working closely with foreign government’s may be the most effective way of reducing human rights violations. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, argued in a recent Bright Blue publication, “megaphone diplomacy and noisy condemnations will always be heard, but may not always be effective with the key decision makers”.

Yet, if the Bahraini Government is not reducing its human rights violations then the effectiveness of this ‘soft’ diplomacy must be questioned. The FCO risks being perceived to be “downgrading” human rights in favour of trade, particularly as it continues to permit Bahrain to fund a Royal Navy base.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue