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Nine years after Bahrain’s uprising, its human rights crisis has only worsened

Analysis | Middle East

It’s been nine years since Bahrain’s February 2011 uprising. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in cities and towns across the country to protest the ruling Al Khalifa family’s tight grip on power, discrimination against the country’s majority Shia population, and arrests of political critics.

The 2011 uprising itself came 10 years after the 2001 referendum in which citizens voted overwhelmingly for the National Action Charter. The charter promised key democratic reforms, including a popularly elected national assembly.

Despite the “honeymoon” after the National Action Charter’s adoption, Bahrain gradually reverted to its repressive past, and by 2010 authorities were detaining prominent opposition activists and closing opposition organizations, and reports of torture of detainees surfaced frequently.

A similar pattern played out following the last uprising.

In the years since, Bahrain’s human rights crisis has only worsened. The authorities have demonstrated a zero-tolerance policy for any free and independent political thought, and they have imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated into silence anyone who criticizes the government.

From the very beginning, Bahraini authorities carried out a systematic campaign of retribution, using lethal force to disperse protests, arresting thousands, and firing hundreds of public sector employees suspected of supporting the protesters’ democratic demands. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, in its November 2011 report, confirmed the “existence of an operational plan” to terrorize protesters and concluded that a lack of accountability had led to a “culture of impunity.”

A case in point is that of Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain’s most prominent human rights defenders and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East advisory committee, in prison since July 2016 due to his peaceful criticism of Bahrain’s dismal human rights record. Although Rajab should not be in prison at all, the courts have also repeatedly rejected his appeals to serve a non-custodial sentence instead of his five-year prison term.

His case is not unique. He is one of dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, opposition leaders, and journalists unjustly imprisoned since the government quelled the 2011 protests.

In October, we found that Bahraini authorities were denying high-profile political prisoners urgently needed medical care, in some cases putting their lives in danger. In one example, the health of Abduljalil al-Singace, a leading opposition figure serving a life sentence for his  role in the 2011 protests, has deteriorated significantly.

Al-Singace had polio as a child and needs crutches to walk. His daughter told us that he has severe chest pain, numbness in his fingers, and shaking in his left hand. Prison authorities have refused to take al-Singace to his medical appointments because he refuses to wear a prison uniform or shackles, which he considers humiliating. International human rights experts have said that using restraints on elderly or infirm prisoners who do not pose an escape risk can constitute inhuman or degrading treatment.

We have also documented routine torture in Bahrain’s prisons, especially during interrogations. Detainees describe electric shocks, suspension in painful positions, forced standing, extreme cold, and sexual abuse.

Bahraini prosecutors and judges use confessions obtained under torture to convict detainees, and even sentence some to death. In July, the authorities executed two men whose trial was marred by allegations of torture and serious due process violations. On January 8, the appeals court reinstated the death penalty against two others, even after a Bahraini oversight body presented evidence “raising suspicions” that the two men had been tortured.

While the authorities actively prosecute people solely for exercising their right to free speech, there have been precious few prosecutions of security personnel implicated in widespread abuses against detainees. The few prosecutions have almost exclusively involved low-ranking officers, and have — without exception — resulted in acquittals or disproportionately light sentences.

Bahrain’s allies, including the United States and United Kingdom, seem reluctant to face the reality of what’s happening in the country. During 2019, the U.S. State Department approved three major weapons sales to Bahrain worth 3.4 billion dollars, despite the government’s dismal record on human rights and relentless persecution of dissidents. The United States has also failed to publicly raise human rights concerns with Bahraini authorities.

Based on freedom of information requests, the United Kingdom has provided 6.5 million pounds of technical assistance to Bahrain since 2012, including support aimed at security and justice sector reform. Yet the oversight bodies the UK has supported have repeatedly failed to hold prison guards and officers to account, amid evidence of inhumane and degrading conditions of Bahrain’s prisons.

Bahrain’s allies need to investigate — and publicly report — how effective their arms sales and assistance to Bahrain have been. They should consider whether they should suspend their support for the security sector until Bahrain releases Nabeel Rajab and others unjustly jailed for criticizing the authorities.

This article has been republished with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

Bahrain protests in March 2011, during the Arab Spring (Arnaud Martinez /
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