Bahrain is a small country, often forgotten unless the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy, which it hosts, is in the news. A country where people continue to fight for democracy despite the high, sometimes deadly, price of speaking out. A country which, for the past two years, has been living to the beat of police crack-downs, arbitrary detentions and tear gas shootings.
I visited Bahrain twice since February 14, 2011, when the Arab Spring protests began. I first went, in April 2012, to meet my friend and colleague Nabeel Rajab, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Deputy Secretary General and President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, as well as other human rights defenders, victims of state violence, and government officials.
Rajab, one of Bahrain's most prominent human rights defenders, was able to provide me with direct accounts of what had been happening in his country over the previous year. For years, he has been fighting to document and expose the abuses of the Bahraini authorities to the rest of the world, particularly the monarchy's most influential ally, the United States.
My second trip, a couple of months later, was a difficult one as I returned to observe Rajab's appeal in September. He had been arrested and convicted for supporting and participating in "illegal gatherings" - the regime's euphemism for freedom of association. He was denied bail at the hearing I attended, and in December 2012, an appeals court sentenced him to two years in prison for participating in peaceful demonstrations and using his Twitter account to call on others to join. During his detention, Rajab was isolated from other prisoners of conscience and housed in a separate unit.
Rajab's case is the norm rather than the exception for human rights defenders working in Bahrain.
Languishing in prison
Like Rajab, scores of Bahrainis are languishing in prison simply for having marched in the street to call for economic, social and political reforms. Human rights defenders have become a major target of the regime, with one leading human rights defender after another being arrested for documenting the ongoing abuses. It seems that in today's Bahrain, the surest way to prison is human rights work.
In July 2011, after mounting pressure from the international community, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa empowered a group of international experts to investigate the events of 2011. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published its report in November 2011, clearly identifying the regime's repressive practices: arbitrary arrests, torture, harassment, lack of access to independent courts respecting fundamental fair trial principles, unfair dismissals, and the list goes on.
Since the publication of this report, the disproportionate use of force by security forces has already resulted in the death of 24 individuals, mainly during protests and due to the excessive use of tear gas or rubber bullets.
Impunity remains the backdrop for these state-sponsored human rights violations. As of now, very few sentences have been rendered by courts for security officers accused of severe human rights violations and those convicted are low-ranking officers. Moreover, torture accusations by those unlawfully detained continue to be dismissed by the judicial system.
Political prisoners such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent human rights defender, and Ibrahim Sharif, the Secretary General of the Wa'ad party, have complained before the judges of torture during their arrest and detention. Indeed, I listened as Mahdi Abu Deeb, a leader of the Bahraini Teachers' Association who remains imprisoned for calling for a strike, described the violent treatment that he was subjected to during his arrest and detention at a hearing in April 2012.
The BICI did not just document facts, it also provided state authorities with a number of recommendations, including dismissal of charges related to political expression, review of all convictions and sentences issued by the National Security Court in ordinary courts, and the establishment of an independent and impartial body to investigate all claims of torture and similar mistreatment, ensure those arrested have prompt access to counsel and are informed of the legal basis for their arrest, and redress for the families of those killed. The Commission also urged the establishment of a national dialogue between the various parties.
Supported by the international community and human rights organisations, these recommendations have been formally approved by King Hamad. However, more than a year has passed and the recommendations have yet to be meaningfully implemented. Instead, arrests continue and the count of those killed since the uprising began in February 2011 now exceeds 80.
Let's be clear - the release of prisoners of conscience - many of them human rights defenders - is a prerequisite to ending this crisis. Without that, tensions between the communities will deepen and repression will continue. While a national dialogue has just resumed between the government and opposition groups, it is of utmost importance that discussions meet the legitimate expectations of all Bahrainis and lead to concrete improvements on the ground.
The regime must stop the rhetoric. It must stop paying lip service to human rights while violating its citizens' most basic rights and protections. The international community and Bahrain's main partners - particularly the United Kingdom, the United States and France, which, contrary to its own rhetoric on respecting human rights, continue to provide military aid to Bahrain - must ensure that Bahrain allows its citizens to enjoy their full rights without fearing dire consequences.
A first step would be to release Rajab and other human rights defenders and protesters immediately. Only when all Bahrainis are allowed to exercise the full spectrum of rights, and human rights defenders allowed to do their important work, will the situation in Bahrain improve.
Note: A report released by FIDH setting out the findings of its observation missions of the trial and appeal of Nabeel Rajab is available here.