WORLD REPORT 1999 - Bahrain

Human Rights Developments

The government of Bahrain continued to engage in serious human rights violations in 1998. The family of a young Bahraini man who died on July 21, two days after being arrested, reported that his body bore marks of torture. Street clashes between security forces and protesters calling for political reform, which had been intermittent in the first part of 1998, increased in the wake of this incident. In 1998 the government tightened already severe restrictions on the right to freedom of association and freedom of expression.

In February, the government appointed Shaikh Khalid bin Muhammad Al Khalifa, a nephew of the ruler, to head the Special Investigation Service. He replaced Ian Henderson, a Briton who had served as Bahrain’s top intelligence and internal security official since 1966. Henderson presided over a security establishment within which officials committed serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary and prolonged detention and torture. The seventy-year-old Henderson remained in Bahrain as a special adviser to the minister of interior. Another British citizen, David Jump, was employed as legal advisor to the minister.

Human Rights Watch had received reports of at least seven deaths due to torture, mistreatment, or medical neglect of detainees since the political unrest began four years ago, in December 1994. The most recent victim, Nuh Khalil Abdallah al-Nuh, twenty-three, was reported to be in good health when he was detained in the al-Na‘im district of Manama by members of the security forces on July 19. When his body was returned to his family for burial two days later, on July 21, it reportedly bore marks of torture. According to press reports, a government spokesperson said that “no one had died in prison or under torture,” but British Minister of State Derek Fatchett, responding to a parliamentary question, said the government had responded to British embassy inquiries by claiming that “the matter was still under investigation.” The authorities did not respond to a letter from Human Rights Watch requesting information about the case.

The government continued to rebuff calls by the People’s Petition Committee and other critics inside the country for the release or fair trial of persons detained without trial or convicted by the State Security Court in unfair trials, the return of persons forcibly exiled, relaxation of restrictions on free expression and association, and future elections to a restored National Assembly, the partially-elected parliament which was suspended by decree in 1975. According to relatives who had met with Shaikh Abd al-Amir al-Jamri, a detained leader of the committee, the authorities subjected him to a week of intensive interrogation and rough physical treatment in April and then brought him before an investigating judge for the purpose of signing a prepared confession alleging that he had ordered arson and sabotage attacks and had acted on behalf of a foreign power. Shaikh al-Jamri refused to sign the document and remained in detention. The shaikh, who was sixty years old and was hospitalized on several occasions in 1998, had been in continuous detention since January 1996 under the State Security Law of 1974, which allowed for up to three years of detention without trial. As of October the government had not publicly produced any evidence that Shaikh al-Jamri or the other seven Shi'a community leaders detained at the same time had participated in or advocated political violence.

The government continued its policy of providing no information concerning the numbers or identities of persons arrested, tried, convicted, acquitted or released under the State Security Law or brought before the State Security Court, where procedures did not meet basic fair trial standards and verdicts were not subject to appeal. Shaikh Muhammad bin Khalifa al-Khalifa, the minister of interior, insisted in a May 17 interview in Akhbar al-Khalij, a pro-government daily, that “incidents of sabotage and rioting were few and isolated. A few hundred people were involved. Even at the peak of disturbances a little over 1,000 were held.” The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported in June that in 1997 it had visited 2,111 persons detained for security reasons in twenty-three places of detention. In keeping with ICRC policy, its findings and recommendations to the government were not made public.

The authorities continued to suppress free expression in the country. For example, persons convicted by the State Security Court included those charged with offenses such as “chanting slogans against the existing political system” and spreading “false rumors liable to undermine state security.” Abdallah Fakhroo, an elderly resident of the capital, Manama, was arrested in February after he raised questions regarding political conditions in Bahrain at a lecture by a visiting Sunni religious dignitary, reportedly in the presence of the minister of justice. After being detained for a month under the State Security Law, he was released at the end of March but rearrested several hours later. In September, while still in detention, Fakhroo was reportedly transferred to a hospital security wing after suffering heart or respiratory problems. He was reportedly released from custody in late September.

Public criticism of government officials and policies remained off-limits. The BBC reported in September that its Arabic-speaking Bahraini stringer had not been allowed to file stories for the past year. Al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based pan-Arab paper, reported on May 8 that the Bahraini government had conveyed to Hafedh al-Shaikh, a columnist for the pro-government daily Al-Ayam, that he could no longer write for publication inside or outside Bahrain after he submitted a column criticizing the militarization of the education sector and questioning the policies of the president of the University of Bahrain, Jasim al-Ghatam, a former military officer.

Bahrainis could, to a limited degree, express themselves and receive information on the Internet. The government apparently appreciated the importance of Internet access for the country’s position as a regional business hub, and the state-controlled telecommunications monopoly, Batelco, reportedly generated considerable revenue from Internet users, including persons who phoned in from Saudi Arabia, which had no public access. Bahraini authorities, however, apparently continued to block access to some websites, including that of the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement (BFM), an opposition group, and to seek ways to improve its capacity to monitor political speech on the Internet. Jalal Alawi Sharif, a Batelco engineer who was arrested in March 1997, reportedly on the grounds that he was transmitting information to the BFM via the Internet, remained in detention without charge or trial in September 1998.

Despite the guarantee of freedom of association in Article 27 of Bahrain’s constitution, authorized civic associations, clubs, and professional societies were closely monitored and effectively prevented from conducting discussions or activities that touched upon Bahraini politics. The Bahraini Lawyers’ Society had been a very partial exception, on the grounds that the duties of the legal profession required lawyers to interpret legislation and to represent clients in politically sensitive trials. Building on this margin of exemption, the society occasionally held “internalevents,” which did not require prior government permission and to which non-lawyers were invited. In a January 1998 meeting, according to participants, the discussion ventured into matters such as income distribution in Bahrain and the absence of democracy. In the days immediately following, security forces reportedly visited the society’s office to interrogate the staff about participants and speakers, and the ministers of justice and interior separately called in Lawyers’ Society President Abbas Hilal to question him about the meeting. On February 28, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Abd al-Nabi al-Shu'ala informed the society’s elected board that the general assembly meeting scheduled for March 19, at which new elections were to be held, would not be allowed to take place, and that their membership on the board had been terminated. The minister then issued Decree 4 of 1998, which charged the society with violating the law governing societies and clubs and appointed a new board.

More than seventy members filed a legal challenge to the government’s action. The government appointed Shaikh Khalifa bin Rashid Al Khalifa, a member of the ruling family and the head of the State Security Court, to hear the case. The minister of labor reportedly met with lawyers leading the court challenge to press them to drop the appeal, to agree to seek permission for all society activities including internal meetings three months in advance, and to refrain from any participation in politics. The lawyers were also instructed to remain silent about these meetings. Court hearings in June, September, and October were postponed at the government’s request, effectively leaving the government-appointed board in charge of the society.

A statement from Bahrain’s embassy in Washington, D.C., in an April 15 response to Human Rights Watch asserted that “a significant portion of the Society’s members” had appealed to the Ministry of Labor to intervene in the organization’s internal affairs owing to alleged “serious financial mismanagement” and discontent “over the course that the previous Board seemed intent on following.” This statement and a subsequent letter from Ambassador Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar in Washington failed to specify what activities the government considered to be seriously enough in breach of the law as to require the removal of the board less than three weeks before already scheduled general elections. As of October, Human Rights Watch’s requests for clarification on these and other points went unanswered.

Human Rights Defenders

No human rights organizations were permitted to operate in Bahrain. The government continued to deny requests by international human rights organizations to conduct fact-finding missions, and reportedly threatened defense lawyers with disbarment if they provided information about arrests and security court trials to the press or to international human rights monitors. The Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO) and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Bahrain (CDHRB), operating abroad, compiled information on detainees, deaths in custody, and other issues, and campaigned for resolutions critical of the government’s practices at meetings of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights and other fora.

In February 1998, in a publication entitled “Human Rights in Perspective,” the government asserted that “for the last three-and-a-half-years Bahrain has faced a classic twentieth century insurrection,” which it “has handled throughout with considerable restraint and evenhandedness by the rigorous application of the rule of law, balancing the interests of public order with the need to uphold individual human rights and dignities.” It went on to state that “there is particular concern at the abuse of the exercise of basic human rights such as freedom of speech as a cover for the dissemination of inflammatory rhetoric and the deceptions of fraudulent terrorist propaganda groups claiming to promote human rights within the international human rights movement.”

The Role of the International Community
Bahrain became a non-permanent member of the Security Council in January, assuming the “Arab seat” for a routine two-year period.

In February the government ratified—with reservations—the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). At the August meeting of the U.N. Sub-Commission, in response to the prospect of a resolution critical of its human rights practices for a second year in a row, Bahrain publicly agreed to a visit by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and to consider withdrawing its reservation to Article 20 of the CAT, which would allow the Committee against Torture to conduct confidential investigations into allegations of torture in Bahrain in cooperation with the government.

In a note verbale to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, dated October 13, 1997, and released on December 5, 1997, the government asserted that a submission on Bahrain by Human Rights Watch at the March 1997 session of the Commission on Human Rights was “based on information and allegations that are neither credible nor accurate,” but provided no specifics. “The allegations of human rights abuses are directed from propagandists with close ties to terrorist organizations,” the government stated.

The Arab World and Iran
Arab governments did not publicly criticize Bahrain’s human rights policies. A Kuwaiti court in March sentenced five Bahraini opposition figures to prison terms of up to three years and fines of up to 500 Kuwaiti dinars (U.S.$1,640) for possessing leaflets and statements harmful to Kuwait’s relations with Bahrain and, in the case of one defendant, possessing a falsified driver’s permit. Fifteen others Bahrainis arrested in Kuwait at the same time were acquitted and three were convicted in absentia. According to Kuwaitis familiar with the case, Kuwait was responding to pressure from Bahrain to crack down on the flow of remittances from Bahrainis working in Kuwait, some of which, according to the authorities, went to opponents of the government.

Relations with Iran, which Bahrain had previously accused of instigating political unrest, appeared to improve in the wake of better ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the March visit to Bahrain of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, now head of the Expediency Council, an official body established to resolve disputes between the Iranian parliament and Council of Guardians.

The European Union
United Kingdom Foreign Minister Robin Cook, in a January 28 meeting with the Bahraini foreign minister and crown prince, “raised the issue of a dialogue between the Bahraini authorities and the Committee for Popular Petition,” according to government spokesperson Baroness Symonsof Vernham Dean, who further stated that “we have discussed Shaikh al-Jamri’s continuing detention without charge with the Bahraini authorities on a number of occasions. We have called on them to release or charge all those held in detention. We will continue to do so.”

In November 1997, Bahrain announced the State Security Court conviction in absentia of five exiled Bahraini opposition personalities living in London and several others residing in Iran on charges of propagating false news, harming the image of Bahrain abroad, and belonging to an illegal organization seeking to overthrow the government by force. They received prison sentences of up to fifteen years and large fines. Three of the London residents, Ali Salman, Hamza al-Dairi, and Haidar al-Sitri, were forcibly exiled by the Bahraini authorities in January 1995. In July 1998 Britain granted them political asylum and permanent residence. On September 17, Bahrain’s interior minister visited Home Secretary Jack Straw to request the arrest of the five under the terms of the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act just passed by the U.K. Parliament, provisions of which make it a criminal offense to conspire in the U.K. to commit abroad any act which would be an offense in the U.K.

Derek Fatchett, minister of state for foreign affairs with responsibility for the Middle East, wrote in August that the British embassy had made several inquiries to the government of Bahrain concerning the death in custody of Nuh Khalil Abdallah al-Nuh (see above). Fatchett visited Manama on September 14-15, where he said that he had explained the steps taken to tighten further laws “against those conspiring to commit crimes overseas.” He also noted that there was no extradition treaty between Bahrain and the U.K. and that there was “no proposal on the table” for such a treaty.

United States
Bahrain continued to serve as headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Bahrain’s importance for U.S. policy in the region was heightened when in January it began a two year term as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. In its presentation of funding requests to Congress for Fiscal Year (FY) 1999, the administration stated that the U.S. “has a demonstrable and enduring national security interest in maintaining its access to Bahraini military facilities in order to preserve the stability of the Persian Gulf,” and that “Bahrain’s support on the Security Council will be instrumental in advancing the full range of USG foreign policy interests.”

In February, when a confrontation between Iraq and the U.N. Security Council threatened to lead to military attacks by a U.S.-led coalition, the U.S. military presence in Bahrain increased sharply. Bahrain initially indicated it would allow aircraft and naval vessels based on its territory to be used in an attack on Iraq. As the crisis intensified, however, Bahrain followed the lead of Saudi Arabia and retracted this permission.

Bahrain’s ruler, Shaikh Isa, and other top officials visited Washington briefly in early June and met with President Bill Clinton, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. There were no public appearances or press briefings by the amir following any of these meetings, and he did not speak at a private dinner given in his honor by a number of large corporations. U.S. officials told Human Rights Watch that specific human rights concerns were raised with the amir and the foreign minister “at the highest levels,” but provided no details.

Other U.S. officials told Human Rights Watch that while human rights was on the agenda of some embassy meetings with Bahraini government officials, the U.S. seldom raised specific requests or concerns, such as the death in custody of Nuh Khalil Abdallah al-Nuh or the prolonged incarceration without charge of Shaikh al-Jamri.

U.S. Foreign Military Sales and Construction Agreements with Bahrain, which totaled U.S.$54 million in FY 1997, were estimated by the administration at U.S.$318 million for FY 1998 and U.S.$100 million for FY 1999. Commercial U.S. military sales were estimated at U.S.$1.8 million for FY 1998 and U.S.$4.5 million for FY 1999. U.S. support for Bahrain in FY 1998 also included U.S.$250,000 in International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds for training in the U.S. of approximately thirty Bahraini officers.

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