The opening of the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council is a good moment to look back over a year of developments concerning human rights in Bahrain. As the below report demonstrates, there have been important developments such as parliamentary approval of CEDAW and domestic violence legislation and important work by the Ombudsman’s Office and other human rights institutions. However, there have also been challenges and setbacks.
Ombudsman’s Office report: The Ombudsman reported a 375% increase in the number of complaints it handled, with a growing number of cases being referred to the courts and other legal bodies for further action. The office’s work has been recognized by the prestigious Challiot Prize for promoting human rights.
Religious freedom report: The report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom praised the Bahrain authorities for “demonstrable progress in rebuilding mosques and religious structures” damaged during the unrest: “The government increased to approximately $8m the amount to rebuild Shi’a mosques and religious structures, nearly twice what it pledged in 2012. It also moved the deadline from 2018 to the end of 2014 to complete the construction of the 30 destroyed structures identified in the BICI report… 14 mosques had been rebuilt, eight by the government and six by the Shi’a community and 13 others were approximately 80-90% complete. The government helped secure legal permits for the six structures built by the Shi’a community.”
Royal amnesty: At the beginning of Ramadan, a royal amnesty allowed for the release of numerous prisoners, including several prominent figures who had been jailed in the context of the 2011 unrest.
Promoting religious tolerance: Following a series of attacks by extremists against Shia mosques across the GCC, the Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse, held joint Sunni and Shia prayers in Bahrain’s major Sunni and Shia places of worship, as a sign of solidarity and to promote national unity and anti-sectarianism.
Combatting corruption: The annual Financial Audit Bureau report sparked widespread discussion about the various violations discovered in public departments, with details of these allegations covered extensively by the media. The document was taken forward by Parliament for further action which recommended a number of measures including committees of investigation. These measures were approved by MPs in June 2016.
Separating religion from politics: The Shura Council approved draft amendments to the Political Societies Law, banning active religious clerics from membership of political societies and involvement in political activity. The amended law states that any member of a religious political society cannot simultaneously be preaching in mosques or involved in religious activities, even on a voluntary basis (see below).
International Human Rights Day: Bahrain’s Ombudsman, Nawaf Al Ma’awdah said: “Allegations of human rights abuses may continue to cast a shadow over Bahrain but my staff and I remain committed to ensuring that all allegations are fully, independently and transparently investigated. There is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate our commitment to access independent evidence and to deliver just and fair outcomes. We have demonstrated that we will act decisively, whenever and wherever we find wrongdoing.”
Bahrain MPs discuss CEDAW: In December there was controversy over proposals to bring Bahrain into line with the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Islamists warned that the bill conflicted with Bahrain’s Islamic traditions, while the Supreme Council for Women and Foreign Ministry argued that the draft was important for protecting the rights of women and demonstrating Bahrain progressive credentials. The bill was still being discussed by Parliament as the year ended (see below).
US State Department report: The State Department annual report on human rights praised progress which made by the Ombudsman’s Office and the NIHR, stating: “Human rights organizations continued to view the BICI report as a standard against which to measure the country’s progress on human rights reforms.”
“Extremists perpetrated dozens of attacks against security officers and government officials during the year, killing three security officers and injuring others… There were no reports that government security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings… Six Ministry of Interior personnel, including three high-ranking officers, received jail terms… for the 2014 beating death of inmate Hasan al-Shaikh at JRRC.”
CEDAW & Domestic Violence Law: Both houses of Parliament approved amendments to Bahrain’s ratification of CEDAW. Previously, during April 2015, Parliament approved the Domestic Violence Protection Law, marking Bahrain out as one of the most progressive states in the region for protecting the rights of women.
FCO report: The British Foreign Office human rights review said: “There was progress on human rights in Bahrain throughout 2015, although challenges remain. The government continued to take steps to implement its human rights and political reform agenda. The government also has a programme of socio-economic reform to promote and contribute to greater social inclusivity and cohesion across all communities.”
The report explained: “The UK’s package of technical assistance to support reform in Bahrain began in 2012. Much of it has focused on building effective and accountable institutions, strengthening the rule of law and police and justice reform, in line with the recommendations in the BICI and UN UPR… Beneficiaries of the UK’s support include independent human rights and oversight institutions such as the NIHR, MoI Ombudsman, PDRC and SIU, who provide independent oversight of police behaviour and detention standards, and were established as a result of BICI recommendations.”
PDRC report: The Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission issued a report on prison conditions in Jau Prison (JRRC). The report discusses all aspects of prisoners’ lives, including recreational facilities, access to legal counsel, family visits and detainees’ welfare. The report concluded: “Overall, the PDRC found things that needed to improve at JRRC to assure the public and the MOI that the prison was properly regulated and safe. The PDRC concluded that the new JRRC management started to improve the prison conditions. A lot of work needed to be done and the PDRC has made recommendations and will follow up with all concerned parties.”
Bassiouni commends implementation of BICI recommendations: Cherif Bassiouni, the independent judge who headed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, arrived in Bahrain on 9 May and gave his assessment of levels of implementation of the 2011 BICI recommendations.
The BICI Chairman said the establishment of the SIU and the Ombudsman were important steps for achieving accountability and transparency. He said the Government had adopted additional measures including the establishment of the PDRC to provide protection for prisoners. In general Bassiouni asserted said that Bahrain had made a lot of progress in implementing reforms. Bassiouni called for a continuation of the King’s reforms project which he described as the main guarantee of stability, prosperity and progress for Bahrain.
Banning clerics from politics: Bahrain’s Shura Council approved a law which prevents serving clerics from being members of political societies and from having any kind of involvement in political activities. The draft bill was passed by the CoR a few days earlier. The Justice Minister stated that religious pulpit had previously been exploited by those pursuing their political interests, including by some candidates during the 2014 elections. A mature political system should not be subject to the influence of religious leaders telling their supporters which political society or candidate to vote for. This new law is a historic step in cementing the separation of religion and politics.
Ombudsman report: Ombudsman’s Office 3rd annual report welcomed the fact that there had been no public casualties as a result of rioting and public order incidents – resulting in a sharp fall in the number of complaints submitted to the Ombudsman regarding such occurrences. The office noted an increase in requests and complaints by 9% to 992 during the report period. Most complaints were associated with Detention and Rehabilitation Centre healthcare; with a large number of calls about inmate access for visits and phone calls. 55 complaints concerned allegations of torture or mistreatment and were referred to the SIU.
Releases and detentions: Zainab al-Khawaja was released from prison on compassionate grounds and soon after she chose to leave the country. Soon after leading opposition figure Nabil Rajab was detained although charges haven’t yet been public. On 14 June Al-Wefaq Islamic Society and three other institutions were temporarily closed down for a range of infringements. These issues are currently being handled by the courts.
UN Human Rights Council: The Universal Periodic Review is a process which allows for continual revisiting of the human rights records of all UN member states. In the second cycle of the UPR in 2012, Bahrain accepted almost all of the recommendations. Bahrain received and submitted a voluntary interim report in 2014 that was drafted in cooperation with the National Institute for Human Rights and civil society organizations. Bahrain’s Government has praised the UPR process as an important mechanism contributing to the achievement of human rights objectives.
BFRCD – Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse
CEDAW – UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
CoR – Council of Representatives
FCO – Foreign and Commonwealth Office
GCC – Gulf Cooperation Council
JRRC – Jau Rehabilitation and Reformation Centre
MOI – Ministry of Interior
PDRC – Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission
SCW – Supreme Council for Women
SIU – Special Investigations Unit
UPR – Universal Periodic Review
USCIRF – United States Commission on International Religious Freedom