Bahrain: Human rights defenders and journalists under continuous attacks

 

Bahrain- Even as Bahrain is up for review in May 2017 during the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR Third Cycle) this year, the authorities continue to prevent human rights defenders and photojournalists from doing their work and make life difficult for them. In addition, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is seriously concerned for the health of human rights defenders who are in prison.

 

GCHR’s Founding Director, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is in need of urgent access to medical care to prevent lasting vision loss. Al-Khawaja, also the former President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), is among a group of prisoners known as the “Bahrain 13” who were sentenced to prison in 2011 for their human rights and pro-democracy activities. The detained Bahrain 13 are suffering a number of reprisals against them at Jaw prison. They are kept locked in their cells most of the day; if they are let out of their cells they are handcuffed and chained from their wrists to ankles; they currently are not able to visit doctors; spousal visits are cancelled and family visits are very limited. In a particularly worrying development which disregards promises by the authorities to follow up on complaints, monitoring bodies are no longer responding to requests.

 

According to Al-Khawaja’s daughter, Maryam-Al-Khawaja, GCHR Special Advisor on Advocacy, “For the past three weeks my father has been having serious problems with his right eye. After daylight he loses complete vision, and during the day he cant see well. He has headaches on the right side of his head and behind his right eye.” However, prison officials have now placed limits on medical visits; and Al-Khawaja refuses to go to the doctor in shackles. He also suffers pain in his face from severe torture which resulted in metal plates and nails being inserted. They were supposed to have been removed in 2015 but there has been no effort to arrange this surgery. In another very worrying development, he has been threatened that anyone in prison who opposes the new regulations will be shot.

 

GCHR also remains concerned for the health of Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, another member of the Bahrain 13 who was sentenced to life in prison. Al-Singace, a blogger, academic, and human rights defender, is in poor health after repeated hunger strikes and the effects of torture following his arrest. He has refused to go to doctor appointments if he was forced to wear the prison uniform, but authorities finally relented last week and allowed him to see a doctor wearing his own clothes. That was before the new, harsher regulations were reportedly implemented. Earlier in March, Al-Singace fainted due to dehydration and was then urgently transferred to the military hospital for two days.

 

Even out of prison, human rights defenders continue to suffer. At the end of February 2017, the Ministry of Labour informed women’s rights defender Ghada Jamsheer that she must start working on 05 March for three months for social services. She was released after four months in prison on 12 December 2016 and told she would have to serve out the rest of her sentence through community service. Jamsheer was imprisoned on 15 August 2016 for a combined ten-month sentence relating to her tweets exposing corruption within the management of King Hamad Hospital. Her medical treatment continues for 10 months, until November 2017, so she had hoped for a delay in the work order to allow time to improve her health. She continues to suffer a great deal of pain in her hands from rheumatoid arthritis, her legs are weak and her immunity is compromised by her medication.

 

Continuing the pattern of disrespect for press freedom, one photojournalist was detained and abused last week, while another was injured during a funeral.

 

Photojournalist Mohammed Al-Shaikh, who previously worked for Agence France Presse (AFP), was released early on 23 March after spending 27 hours in the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID). Al-Shaikh arrived in Bahrain from India on the night of 21 March, when the police stopped him, handcuffed and blindfolded him. He was taken to the Ministry of Interior clinic for medical tests, where he was filmed while wearing only underwear. Then he was handcuffed again and blindfolded and spent a few hours in a cold room in CID. On 22 March, he was questioned in detail by several officers about his work with AFP. A media police officer arrived, and took off his handcuffs and told him he would be freed soon, but it took another six hours before he was released. Al-Shaikh was denied a license to practise journalism this year.

 

On 25 March 2017, photojournalist Mazen Mahdi was injured by a teargas canister fired directly at his head by the police while he was covering the funeral of 18-year-old Mustafa Hamdan, who died two months after being shot in the back of the head by masked armed men who fired upon peaceful demonstrators in Duraz in January. Mahdi was reportedly wearing a vest clearly identifying him as a member of the press, reports BCHR.

 

On 26 March, the Court of Cassation heard the case of photographer Sayed Ahmed Al-Mousawi, after the Court overturned his sentence on 16 January 2017. The next hearing is on 23 April 2017. In November 2015, Al-Mousawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and his nationality was revoked after he covered demonstrations in 2014. Al-Mousawi, a winner of 127 international photography awards, was arrested on 10 February 2014, when security forces raided his home in Duraz. Al-Mousawi alleged that he was tortured during his detention and interrogation.

 

Human rights defenders have also been stopped at the airport while travelling to or from Bahrain. On 23 March, human rights defender Zainab Al-Khamis, a member of the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS), was stopped at the airport on her way to Qatar for a family visit. She had already received her boarding card when she was questioned for hours about her reasons for traveling. Upon her return home on 25 March, she was stopped again and questioned for a short time.

 

On 20 March, human rights defender Ebtisam Al-Saegh, a member of Salam organization for Democracy and Human Rights, was questioned at the airport upon arrival from the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

 

Both Al-Saegh and Al-Khamis were questioned in November 2016 by the cybercrimes unit, along with a number of other human rights defenders. See: http://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1432

 

Clearly human rights defenders and journalists are not able to work freely in Bahrain without suffering reprisals. Human rights defender and well-known peace activist Maytham Al-Salman was forced to continue his work from abroad in defending universal human rights and countering extremism and hatred, after being arrested and thoroughly interrogated "26 times" prior to his departure from the country.

 

In a joint submission to the UPR’s 27thsession working group, GCHR, BCHR and CIVICUS highlighted Bahrain’s targeting of human rights defenders, journalists, and others. The joint submission called attention to the extreme restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly in Bahrain and the failure of the authorities to implement recommendations related to freedom of expression that Bahrain had accepted in the last UPR cycles. See: http://www.gc4hr.org/report/view/61

 

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights urges the authorities in Bahrain to:

 

    Immediately and unconditionally free Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Abduljalil Al-Singace from prison, and allow them unhindered access to medical care;

    Immediately and unconditionally free Sayed Ahmed Al-Mousawi and drop all charges against him, as well as to promote and protect freedom of the press by allowing journalists and photographers to carry out their work unhindered; 

    End reprisals against human rights defenders who are engaging with the international mechanisms including the UN system; and

    Guarantee in all circumstances that journalists, media workers and all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.

 

GCHR respectfully reminds you that the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998, recognises the legitimacy of the activities of human rights defenders, their right to freedom of association and to carry out their activities without fear of reprisals. We would particularly draw your attention Article 6 (c): “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others: (c) To study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters“, and to Article 12 (2): “The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present declaration.”

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