The Bahrain section of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report makes a number of legitimate points about the need for further judicial reform, strengthening the rights of migrant workers and increasing the accountability of the security forces. Many similar points were raised in the annual report by the Bahrain Institution for Human Rights, which was widely welcomed.

However, there were a number of shortcomings in the HRW report and issues that should be challenged. Once again this appears to be due to a readiness to uncritically accept material and assertions provided by the Bahraini opposition, which has a clear political agenda in highlighting certain human rights matters.

1.     HRW Director, Joe Stork: “It’s difficult to see how anyone could claim with a straight face that Bahrain is on the path to reform”.

Citizens for Bahrain and others have extensively documented the numerousreforms which have taken place since 2011. These reforms have been acknowledged and praised by diplomats. HRW contradict themselves when they refer to several of these reforms later in their report, including the establishment of the Independent Ombudsman, the new police Code of Conduct and the Special Investigations Unit.

2.     “The government has not carried out key recommendations of the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that it had pledged to adopt.”

Citizens for Bahrain research has illustrated considerable successes by the authorities in implementing BICI recommendations. The committee responsible for following up on BICI implementation has also documented in considerable detail implementation of these recommendations. While it is possible to argue that more work needs to be done in certain areas – particularly the reconciliation agenda, strengthening the judiciary and ensuring full accountability for events of 2011 – it is deeply unfair, misleading and incorrect to claim that the Government has not carried its obligations.

3.     “Bahraini courts, which lack independence, sentenced more than 200 defendants to long prison sentences, including at least 70 for life, on broadly drawn terrorism and national security charges.”

The report completely ignores abuses carried out by militants associated with the opposition over the past four years and so we are left with the assumption that all those detained on terrorism charges were dealt with unfairly.

In just the space of one and a half years eight policemen have been killed in terrorist bombings and many other police and civilians have been injured. Over this time only two rioters died during clashes with police.

4.     “In 2014, the main opposition party continued to refuse to participate in the national dialogue process to protest authorities prosecuting some of its senior members and, with other opposition parties, boycotted November’s elections in protest at an unfair electoral system.”

It is refreshing to see HRW acknowledge the opposition’s refusal to participate in the democratic process and the process of National Dialogue. The claim of an “unfair electoral system” is undermined by the considerable reforms which occurred prior to the 2014 elections, precisely with the aim of addressing some key opposition grievances.

5.     “Fifty individuals were convicted on charges of establishing and joining a group known as the February 14 Coalition with the aim of ‘sowing chaos in the country’.”

The 14 February Coalition itself acknowledged its role in perpetrating terrorist attacks and its intention of committing further acts of terrorism was made clear. In this context it is obvious that the authorities acted correctly in breaking up this organization which was determined to use non-peaceful methods.

6.     “In January, security forces shot and killed Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon. Authorities said police officers shot him in self-defense as he drove an ‘oncoming car’ towards them, but photographs of his body appeared to contradict this version.”

There is no mention here that Marhoon was shot in the context of an arms smuggling operation. Even if HRW is willing to use materials provided by the opposition to cast doubts over the circumstances of his shooting; HRW should have made clear that Marhoun’s death occurred in the context of serious criminalactivity and he was in no way a “peaceful protestor”.  

7.     “In response to one of the BICI’s recommendations, the government established the Office of the Ombudsman within the Interior Ministry “to ensure compliance with professional standards of policing set forth in the Code of Conduct for the Police” and to report misconduct to the ministry and any criminal acts to the public prosecutor. The government created a Special Investigations Unit within the Public Prosecution Office as well.”

Good to see mentions of some of the key reforms and brief discussion of the work these important entities are doing.

8.     “The BICI also found that Bahrain’s security forces had killed at least 18 demonstrators and detainees without justification.”

At several points the wording of the HRW report is unclear for the casual reader in referring back to old allegations, in this case incidents which occurred in 2011 and therefore outside the reporting period. 

9.     “German authorities granted political asylum to a senior staff member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Sayed Yousif Almuhafdah, in March. Almuhafdah had been the subject of death threats on social media after the BCHR launched a campaign that accused senior members of the ruling Al-Khalifa family of responsibility for serious rights abuses and called for their criminal prosecution. Almuhafdah sought asylum after he and his wife received summonses to appear before Bahrain’s public prosecutor.”

If Almuhafdah had indeed received threats via the social media then that is something we would indeed condemn. However, readers should be aware that Almuhafdah’s BCHR – an organization that is part of the opposition and not an impartial human rights group – began this cycle of incitement to violence when they embarked on a Wanted campaign, highlighting individuals they unilaterally singled out as deserving vigilante justice. Other groups embarked on their own rival Wanted campaign, soon after which Almuhafdhah decided to leave the country.

We would unreservedly condemn all parties that single out individuals for attack and who incite vigilante actions outside the justice system.

10.             “Women’s Rights: Law no. 19 of 2009 on the Promulgation of the Law of Family Rulings regulates matters of personal status in Bahrain’s Sunni courts. It does not apply in the country’s Shia courts, with the consequence that Shia women, who comprise the majority of women in Bahrain, are not covered by a codified personal status law.”

HRW fails to recognize that this law does now cover Shia courts because sectarian opposition groups like Al-Wefaq blocked this law during their time in Parliament, which has damaged the rights of their own community, prevented women from accessing justice and once again proves how beholden Al-Wefaq is to senior Shia clerics.

11.             “Due to shortcomings in Bahrain’s legal and regulatory framework and the authorities’ failure to enforce relevant labor laws, [migrant workers] endure serious abuses, such as unpaid wages, passport confiscation, unsafe housing, excessive work hours, physical abuse, and forced labor.”

Thank you to HRW for addressing an issue that deserves urgent attention. Bahrain may be well ahead of other regional states in protecting the rights of expatriate workers, but there is still a long way to go.

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