WORLD REPORT 1998 - Bahrain

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Bahrain showed no improvement in 1997 and in some respects worsened. Street protests and clashes between security forces and demonstrators calling for political reform, which had first erupted in December 1994, continued throughout the year, intensifying in June 1997. Shaikh Abd al-Amir al-Jamri and seven other Shi`a community leaders, arrested inJanuary 1996, remained in detention without charge. The government continued to prosecute persons on security-related charges in the State Security Court, where procedures did not meet basic fair trial standards and whose verdicts were not subject to appeal. The exercise of the freedoms of assembly and political association remained effectively outlawed under the terms of the penal code and the law of societies and clubs.

The year saw further arrests and harassment of individuals for writing or possessing written materials which the government considered hostile. On June 14, 1997, six young men in detention for the previous fourteen months were found guilty by a State Security Court on charges of possessing leaflets that according to the Interior Ministry contained "false news and unfounded statements." They were sentenced to time already served plus fines of 200 Bahraini dinars (BD; approximately U.S.$530). In March 1997, Sayyid Jalal Alawi Sharaf, an engineer employed by the state telecommunications company, was arrested in a dawn raid on his home, and his home computer equipment was confiscated, reportedly on the grounds that he was transmitting information abroad via the Internet. He remained in detention without charge or trial as of early October. In February, Ali Hasan Yusif was dismissed from his job with the Ministry of Information and subsequently arrested and detained without charge for several months in connection with a volume of poems he had published, some of which referred in very general terms to conditions of censorship and oppression. Yasir al-Sayigh was detained for months without charge and beaten after a coworker had thrown a leaflet in his office wastebasket.

The government also moved to prevent information about the situation in the country from reaching the outside world through the media. In late September 1996, Abbas Salman, a Bahraini reporter working for Reuters for nearly twenty years, was detained for more than twenty-four hours and interrogated about a story he had filed before being released without charge. In early 1997, the government issued a regulation restricting Bahraini journalists employed by local media from also working for the international press. The government was thus able to force Ismat Moussawi, a reporter with Al-Ayyam , a daily close to the government, to cease her work as the BBC Arabic Service stringer, thus effectively stifling an important source of uncensored news for many Bahrainis.

In June 1997 the government closed the office and expelled the correspondent of the German Press Agency (DPA), the last Western news agency with a bureau in Bahrain. The correspondent, Ute Meinel, told Human Rights Watch that her expulsion followed her eyewitness accounts of three days of intense clashes in the town of Sanabis in June, and dispatches regarding several unrelated cases of Bahrainis who had died after being beaten by security forces. On the night of June 24, she was summoned by a senior interior ministry official and interrogated about a recent dispatch. The next day she was shown a charge sheet accusing her of "spreading lies, harming the welfare of the state, insulting the ruling family." Two days later, the Interior Ministry official told her that she would have to leave Bahrain immediately.

In July 1997, ten leaders of the People's Petition Committee prepared a letter to the amir, Shaikh Isa bin Salman, requesting a meeting to discuss political reform issues raised in a 1994 petition which the organizers claimed had been signed by 21,751 Bahrainis. These issues included restoring the partially-elected National Assembly, which was disbanded by decree in 1975, freeing political prisoners, and allowing the return of persons forcibly exiled by the government. An official in the prime minister's office telephoned several committee members to warn them against delivering the letter. On July 29 a high Interior Ministry official summoned two of them, Ahmad al-Shamlan, a defense lawyer and veteran opposition activist, and Ibrahim Kamal Eddin, a businessman, and warned them to cease their efforts. When the men declined, the official told al-Shamlan, who suffers from a heart ailment, to "think of your health." The next day the official phoned al-Shamlan to say that he would not be allowed to leave for Europe that evening as planned for medical tests and a vacation. Several hours later al-Shamlan suffered a serious stroke from which he had not recovered as of October 1997.

The government provides virtually no information regarding numbers of persons arrested, tried, convicted, acquitted or released in political or security-related cases. The exception concerned the high-profile March 1997 security court trials of fifty-nine Bahrainis whom the government charged in June 1996 with planning and carrying out acts of sabotage on behalf of "Hizballah Bahrain-Military Wing." Thirty-six of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to fifteen years plus large fines, and twenty-three were acquitted. Based on information made available by Bahraini defense lawyers, Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 600 persons were taken into custody for political or security-related offenses over the past year, and at least seventy-one were convicted by state security courts. Bahraini lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the number of persons in prolonged detention without trial was around 1,500 in late September 1997-approximately the same number as were being held a year earlier-and that beatings and other forms of physical abuse were commonly used to secure confessions and information.

In late October 1996, the government signed an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), allowing that organization access to persons held for security-related offenses. There were reports that the ICRC had visited over one thousand detainees in more than twenty detention centers. In keeping with ICRC policy, its findings were communicated directly to the government and not announced publicly.

During the year, three persons died in detention or very shortly after being released from detention, prompting allegations of medical neglect and mistreatment. Shaikh Ali al-Nachas, a blind cleric about fifty years old, had been imprisoned without charge or trial from January 1996 until February 1997, reportedly on grounds that his sermons were "political." Shortly after his release he was rearrested on similar grounds, and died in custody on June 29.

The death of al-Nachas followed the deaths in late May and early June of two young men, reportedly after beatings at the hands of security forces. Bashir Abdallah Ahmad Fadhil died following an assault by security forces in the village of Daih on May 18. According to the Bahrain Freedom Movement, an opposition organization, Fadhil was among some thirty persons beaten and arrestedthen, and two days later his body was returned to his family for burial. The government claimed he died of "natural causes" associated with his having been a drug addict. An independent journalist told Human Rights Watch that Fadhil's history of addiction may have contributed to his death, but that witnesses saw him being beaten severely by security forces. On June 6, Abd al-Zahra Ibrahim Abdallah, twenty-seven, died after his arrest five days earlier during clashes with security forces in the village of Sanabis. The government claimed that Abdallah had been released from custody on June 3 and "later died in a hospital from a blood disease." According to the Bahrain Freedom Movement, Abdallah was beaten at the time of his arrest and transferred to Salmaniyya hospital, where he died.

The unrest has been marked by increased violence against persons and property. Independent journalists confirmed to Human Rights Watch that security forces, in suppressing gatherings deemed illegal, increasingly resorted to smashing automobiles and other property, including Shi`a assembly halls ( ma'tam s) and mosques. Protesters sabotaged power generators and attacked other public property as well as individual shops. There were arson attacks on stores and residences that killed six South Asian workers over the past year. No group or individuals claimed responsibility for any of these attacks. Three men who were sentenced to die in 1996 for their alleged role in a firebomb attack that killed seven foreign nationals remained in prison as of October 1997.

The government routinely attributed attacks and the unrest generally to Iranian-backed "terrorists," a term it applied to the opposition without distinction, including such groups as the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, which asserted that it is committed to a strategy of nonviolent civil resistance. On July 9 Shaikh Isa Qasim, a prominent opposition leader now living in Iran, condemned "all the fires and sabotage that destroy properties and that cause death."

The Right to Monitor

No local human rights organizations were permitted to operate in Bahrain, and the government continued to deny requests from international human rights organizations to conduct official visits. Over the past year, the government increased pressure on Bahraini defense lawyers to refrain from providing information about arrests and security court trials to the press, and threatened some lawyers with disbarment if they continued to do so. Close government monitoring of telephone, fax and Internet links made most Bahrainis afraid to discuss the situation with Human Rights Watch.

The Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO) and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Bahrain (CDHRB), operating abroad, compiled information on detainees and other issues. In responding to questions from Human Rights Watch in March 1997, Bahrain's ambassador in Washington, Dr. Muhammad Abdul-Ghaffar, charged that "the BHRO is not a bona fide Human Rights Organization" and that its director, Abdul-Hadi Abdallah al-Khawaja, "is a trained terrorist and a fugitive from the 1981 failed armed coup." He provided no evidence for these allegations, and in a letter to Human Rights Watch al-Khawaja noted that he had flown back to Bahrain in February 1994 in an effort to return home-hardly the step of a fugitive from an armed coup attempt. At that time, according to a letter al-Khawaja submitted immediately afterwards to the U.N. Human Rights Center, the authorities interrogated him at the airport for eleven days about his human rights activities and finally denied him entry, but at no point mentioned the ambassador's subsequent allegations about the attempted coup.

Following the July publication of Human Rights Watch's report Routine Abuse, Routine Denial: Civil Rights and the Political Crisis in Bahrain, Ambassador Abdul-Ghaffar wrote to Human Rights Watch that "the majority of the information upon which the report has been based is neither credible nor accurate" but provided no specifics. The ambassador continued, "There is no deterioration of the human rights situation in Bahrain and the government has, through its legitimate police forces and the rule of law, dealt with the situation in an entirely fair, sensitive and proper manner balancing the requirements of public order and individual rights."

The Role of the

International Community

United Nations

The 49th Session of the United Nations Subcommission on Human Rights, meeting in Geneva in August, passed a resolution expressing "deep concern about the alleged gross and systematic violations of human rights" in Bahrain and urging the government "to comply with international human rights standards and to ratify the international covenants on human rights and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment." The resolution also requested the Commission on Human Rights to consider Bahrain's human rights situation at its next session. Bahrain, in an unsuccessful effort to persuade some of the subcommission experts to vote against the resolution, offered to ratify the Convention Against Torture and to donate $100,000 to one of the working groups of the Subcommission.

Bahrain was also cited for reported human rights violations in the reports of the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers (February 1997) and the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (January 1997).

The Arab World

Bahrain's government continued to enjoy the support of most Arab governments for its policies, and a number of the Gulf Cooperation Council states provided financial aid. No Arab government except Qatar ( see below) publicly criticized any aspect of Bahrain's human rights record. Algerian President Liamine Zeroual visited Bahrain in mid-October 1996, where he was quoted as saying, "There will be coordination between Bahrain and Algeria to wipe out terrorism in the Arab world." In March 1997, Kuwaiti state security officials detained thirteen Bahraini nationals for "gathering donations without permission and distributing illegal literature," according to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan, and four remained in detention in early October 1997. In May 1997, the special operations commander of the Jordanian armed forces visited Bahrain, and the next month the director of Jordan's General Intelligence Department led a delegation to Bahrain to discuss "issues of common concern," according to the official Bahraini news agency.

In December 1996, Bahrain announced it would try two Qatari nationals on charges of espionage in connection with a long-running dispute between Qatar and Bahrain over ownership of the uninhabited Hawar islands. Qatar charged that its two nationals had been tortured, which Bahrain denied. The two were convicted by the State Security Court on December 25, 1996, but were promptly pardoned by the amir.

European Union

In September 1997 the European Parliament passed a resolution on human rights abuses in Bahrain, calling on the government to release political prisoners, to open negotiations with the opposition with a view to scheduling democratic elections, and to allow monitoring of human rights conditions by international and local organizations. The resolution also requested that the fifteen member states "refrain from supplying arms or security support" to Bahrain and "take initiatives in order to obtain similar restraint at the international level until democratic conditions have been restored."

The United Kingdom's policy toward Bahrain was generally uncritical with regard to human rights, although the election of a Labour government in March did lead to some critical public remarks. Derek Fatchett, the new minister of state responsible for the Middle East, responding to questions on Bahrain in a parliamentary debate on June 3, stated that he had raised human rights concerns in a recent meeting with the Bahraini ambassador and urged the ambassador to invite "Amnesty International or any similar organization to be involved in monitoring the situation closely." Fatchett also characterized the Bahraini opposition based in London as "moderate people with a moderate set of demands."

United States

Bahrain serves as headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, comprising some fifteen warships and approximately 1,500 on-shore U.S. military personnel and dependents. During the year the U.S. Air Force also deployed some twenty fighter aircraft and, for a time, several B-1 bombers in Bahrain as well, and U.S. and Bahraini forces conducted joint exercises.

The State Department congressional presentation for Fiscal Year 1998 estimated that U.S. military sales would total U.S.$201.2 million, and that fiscal year 1997 sales were $78.8 million. In July the Department of Defense notified Congress of the intent to sell Bahrain twenty F-16 fighter jets at an estimated cost of $303 million. Under the Excess Defense Articles program, which allows for free or reduced-price transfers of "excess" U.S. weapons inventory, the U.S. provided Bahrain with Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, howitzers, and a former U.S. Navy frigate. The Clinton administration also requested $175,000 in International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds for training Bahraini armed forces in fiscal 1998.

Several high-level U.S. military officials visited Bahrain in the course of the year. In June Defense Secretary William Cohen delivered a letter from President Clinton to Shaikh Isa, the amir, inviting him to visit Washington later in the year. Secretary Cohen did not comment publicly on Bahrain's internal security policies, confining his remarks to Bahrain's military cooperation with the U.S. in the Persian Gulf.

State Department officials avoided public comment on the human rights record of this close ally. In September, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, commenting during her visit to Saudi Arabia on the recent election of Muhammad Khatami as president of Iran, said that the U.S. would continue to support "the UAE and Bahrain against Iranian intimidation," but made no mention of human rights in either country. The emphasis on security without regard for human rights was reaffirmed by President Clinton's nominee as ambassador to Bahrain, Johnny Young, who in his Senate confirmation hearings in September stated, "The United States supports fully the Government of Bahrain's efforts to maintain order and stability in the face of periodic outbreaks of violence." Other than a pro forma qualification that "this objective must be pursued in a manner consistent with international standards of human rights," Young avoided mention of the severely repressive situation inside the country.

The Bahrain chapter in the Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1996 was comprehensive, but continued to understate the government's hostility to human rights monitoring and made a point of denigrating gratuitously the human rights work of the BHRO and the CDHRB, commenting that they "reportedly receive funds from sources hostile to the government" and "are viewed by many local observers as espousing a political, rather than a purely human rights, agenda."

Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:

Routine Abuse, Routine Denial: Civil Rights and the Political Crisis in Bahrain , 6/97

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