March 07, 2023
In light of your forthcoming attendance at the 146th Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Assembly scheduled to take place in Bahrain from March 11 to March 15, 2023, we write to urge you to publicly raise concerns regarding the dire state of political freedom in Bahrain, including the ongoing detention of two former members of Bahrain’s parliament.
The slogan of the IPU is “For democracy. For everyone,” and the theme for this year’s conference is “Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance.”
The government of Bahrain, however, imposes restrictions on expression, association and assembly that violate Bahrain’s international human rights obligations. Elections are neither free nor fair, and opposition voices are systematically excluded and repressed.
We ask that you take the opportunity of the Assembly, which is meeting in a country where activists are banned from organizing, to publicly raise human rights concerns with Bahraini officials. In particular, we request that you meet with and call for the release of jailed opposition activists, who have never been charged with an internationally recognizable crime. We urge you to ensure that the IPU’s 146th Assembly will not be used by the Bahraini authorities to whitewash its dismal rights record.
Suppression of Political Opposition and Civil Society
In 2016 and 2017, Bahrain’s judiciary dissolved two of the country’s main political opposition parties, Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad. Political isolation laws introduced in 2018 have barred former members of these parties from running for parliament or sitting on boards of governors of civil society organizations. These laws also target former prisoners, including those detained due to their political work. Those impacted by the political isolation laws also face routine delays and denials in their ability to access “Good Conduct Certificates,” a document required for Bahraini citizens and residents to apply for a job or university admission or even join a sports or social club.
As of 2017, Bahrain’s last independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was forced to shut down.
All independent media has been effectively banned in the country.
With this restrictive legal regime in place, elections in Bahrain cannot be free or fair. Bahrain’s last parliamentary elections, in November of 2022, were ostensibly the most restricted since parliamentary elections were reintroduced in 2002. The 2018 political isolation laws effectively barred all members of the political opposition from running in the elections.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) has said that the application of the political isolation laws, combined with the enforcement of Legislative Decree No. 57 of 2014, which allows the government to remove the names of people who have chosen not to vote in previous elections from the electoral roll, resulted in the denial of the right to vote for an estimated 94,000 to 105,000 people.
According to Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, the Bahraini authorities arbitrarily detained 11 former MPs and sentenced 10 of them to prison following unfair trials. The authorities tortured two and deprived four of their citizenship. The IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians has itself raised the violations faced by two former MPs with the country’s authorities.
Detention and Torture of Prisoners of Conscience
Many members of Bahrain’s political opposition, as well as activists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, continue to be imprisoned for their roles in the 2011 pro-democracy protests, as well as for more recent political activism. They have faced brutal treatment, including torture and denial of medical care. Several of them, including Hassan Mushaima, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Sheikh Mohammed Habib Al-Muqdad, Abdulwahab Husain, Naji Fateel, and Sheikh Ali Salman, have been sentenced to life in prison. The European Parliament has called for the release of most of them, saying that they were “detained and sentenced for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
Many of these people serving unjust prison sentences have additionally been subjected to torture and medical negligence in prison. This includes Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, an award-winning activist and academic who is serving a life sentence for exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly. Dr. Al-Singace has been denied critical health care, including physiotherapy he needs for his disabilities.
A Danish-Bahraini dual citizen, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, has been denied surgery that he requires to treat his jaw, which was brutally broken by security forces when he was arrested for taking part in the 2011 pro-democracy protests. In December 2022, the European Parliament passed an urgent resolution calling for his release, and describing his health problems as the “direct consequence of his imprisonment, torture and deprivation of access to medical care.”
Most recently, the authorities at Jau Prison raided the cells of 14 political prisoners, allegedly torturing some of them.
Stripping Bahrainis of Citizenship
In addition to the political repression in Bahrain, an estimated 300 Bahrainis have been stripped of their citizenship following arbitrary processes. This has left most of these individuals stateless—a direct violation of international law. Some were forcibly expelled from the country, while others were forced to live in exile abroad. One of those forced into exile and stripped of his citizenship is a former MP, Jawad Fairooz. In some cases, family members of those who have been stripped of citizenship who remain in the country have faced reprisals for activists’ ongoing advocacy efforts abroad.
The invitation by the government of Bahrain to hold the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Manama this year presents a significant opportunity. Delegates can act to improve the human rights situation in the country, for their counterpart MPs as well as the broader Bahraini population.
Members of parliament traveling to Bahrain from around the world have a critical role to play in raising these violations of human rights amongst other parliamentarians and with Bahraini authorities. We urge visiting members of parliament attending the IPU to call on the Bahraini authorities to:
- Unconditionally and immediately release all those imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, including Hassan Mushaima, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, Abdulwahab Husain, Sheikh Ali Salman, Naji Fateel, Danish-Bahraini citizen Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and Swedish-Bahraini citizen Sheikh Al-Muqdad;
- Implement longstanding UN treaty body recommendations and rescind Bahrain’s “political isolation laws,” which include arbitrary bans on opposition parties, civil society groups, and independent media and encourage the development of civic space in Bahrain;
- Ensure the respect for, and protection of, the right to freedom of expression, and take necessary steps to ensure media freedom;
- End the use of torture and other ill-treatment and tackle the culture of impunity by holding suspected abusers accountable and ensuring effective mechanisms for victims to receive justice and restitution in line with UN treaty body obligations and recommendations;
- Halt all executions and seriously investigate torture allegations;
- Independently and impartially investigate all violations of the right to a fair trial; and
- Reinstate citizenship to all those arbitrarily stripped of their citizenship, in line with UN recommendations.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR), Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), European Center for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR), Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), The #FreeAlKhawaja campaign, Bahrain Forum for Human Rights, Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Bahrain Human Rights Society, MENA Rights Group, PEN International, PEN America, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Scholars at Risk, Rights Realisation Centre, Human Rights First, Front Line Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)