Bahrain: still no justice one year after protests began

Thousands expected to mark 14 February protest anniversary tomorrow

One year on from the outbreak of protests in Bahrain, Amnesty International has warned that the Bahraini government risks falling short of its self-imposed deadline of the end of February to implement the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations over the authorities’ handling of the protests.

The organisation called on the government to release all prisoners convicted or held solely for peaceful participation in protests and to bring all those responsible for the gross human rights violations committed during the last year to account.

As Bahraini protesters prepare to mark the one year anniversary of the start of mass anti-government protests, the organisation also warned the Bahraini government not to use excessive force against demonstrators.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:

“Despite promises made by the government, victims and families of victims of the serious human rights violations -  torture, arbitrary detention and excessive use of force - that have taken place since protests began a year ago are still waiting for justice.

“The government has made a number of announcements of what it has done to improve the human rights situation, but the fact is that it has still not delivered in the most important areas.

“Only when we see prisoners of conscience being released and perpetrators, including those who gave orders, being brought to justice will we be able to judge whether this is more than a public relations exercise.”

At least 35 people died during protests in February and March 2011, including five members of the security forces and three migrant workers. At least a further 20 have died since then in ongoing protests and excessive use of force by the security forces.

Amnesty said that since the end of June 2011 the government has taken some limited positive steps, including: the lifting of the state of emergency; the setting up of an independent commission of inquiry made up of five international experts; the release of some detainees; the transfer of all trials from military courts to civilian ones; and the reinstatement of hundreds of workers to their roles.

On 23 November the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) submitted its report to the Bahraini King and made detailed practical and legislative recommendations. The report confirmed that gross human rights violations had been carried out. The King accepted the findings of the report and appointed a 19-person national commission, made up of mostly government supporters, to oversee implementation. Bahrainis have complained that the implementation process is very slow and has not addressed the most important issues.

At the beginning of 2012 the government said that 48 people from the security forces had been investigated for their roles in suppressing protests. So far only eight policemen, five Pakistanis, a Yemeni national and two Bahrainis, are known to have been brought to trial for human rights violations. Very little information has been made public about how these investigations were carried out or their terms of reference.

The Minister of Interior said on 2 February that most of the recommendations related to the ministry had been implemented and that he has transferred all cases involving allegations of torture and other abuses made against the police to the Public Prosecution Office for investigation and possible prosecution.

Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment continue to be reported. Hassan ‘Oun, an 18-year-old student was arrested on 3 January in ‘Arad. An official from the Public Prosecution Office ordered his detention for 45 days pending investigation. He told his lawyer that when he was initially held in a police station he was forced to stand for about 11 hours and that he had been beaten on his feet with a hose and threatened with rape.

More than 1,000 people dismissed from their positions during the unrest have still not been reinstated in their jobs, according to Bahraini trade unionists. Many of those who have been allowed to go back to their jobs have been asked to sign statements that they would not protest again and were put under pressure to give up trade unionism activities, in addition to sometimes being asked to do different jobs and functions from their original ones.

Thousands of people, the vast majority from the Shi’a majority population, are expected to defy the authorities and take part in protests tomorrow to mark the first anniversary of the beginning of protests on 14 February 2011. There are fears that violence could erupt between protesters and security forces, who have routinely used excessive force to quell protests. In recent weeks, small-scale protests in Shi’a villages and in the outskirts of Manama have increasingly ended in violence with both security forces and protesters blaming each other.

The security forces have continued to use excessive force to deal with demonstrators. In particular, several protesters have died since the end of November as a direct or indirect result of the inappropriate use of tear gas. Teargas is being used even inside houses, when security forces enter suspects’ homes. Sayyed Hashem Saeed, aged 15, was killed when a tear gas canister hit him at close range during the security forces’ response to a protest in Sitra, south of Manama, on 31 December. Security forces later also used tear gas to disperse mourners at his funeral. As well as the use of excessive force by security forces, there have been incidents of groups of masked young Bahrainis attacking security forces, including with Molotov cocktails, blocking roads and burning tyres.

Amnesty called on the Bahraini authorities to allow peaceful protests to take place on 14 February and to lift all travel restrictions on foreign journalists and international human rights organisations. Several journalists and human rights workers have been denied entry at Bahrain International Airport and others have been refused visas. Many journalists had been planning to travel to Bahrain to cover the 14 February anniversary.
 
Amnesty said it feared that the government wanted to avoid international scrutiny as mass demonstrations are expected.

Background: human rights in Bahrain in 2011
In February and March 2011 tens of thousands of Bahrainis, mostly from the Shi’a community, protested against the government and called for political reforms, social justice and an end to what they perceived as government discrimination against them.

Excessive use of force:
During 14-21 February seven protesters died as a result of excessive use of force, including the use of rubber bullet, shotguns and other live ammunition. In mid-March a state of emergency was declared, a day after Saudi troops entered Manama to support government forces.

Arrests, detention and torture:
In the following days and weeks hundreds of activists, including opposition leaders, medical workers, teachers, journalists and students were rounded up and detained. Most were arrested at dawn without arrest warrants and held incommunicado in police stations or in the Criminal Investigations Directorate in Manama. Many reported that they were tortured or ill-treated during the period when they were interrogated. They were forced into signing confessions which were used against them in court.

Unfair military trials:
Scores of people were tried by the National Safety Court of First Instance, a military court established by the emergency law, and sentenced to prison terms of up to life after grossly unfair trials.

Dismissals:
More than 4,000 people, including teachers, students and nurses, were dismissed from their jobs or university because of their active participation in the anti-government protests.

Destruction of religious structures:
At least 30 Shi’a prayer centres were demolished in the aftermath of the February-March protests on the pretext that they had been built illegally. Amnesty considers this practice to have constituted a form of collective punishment.

Trial of opposition leaders:
AbdelHadi al-Khawaja, a well-known human rights and opposition activist, was one of 14 prominent opposition leaders arrested, tried and sentenced on charges that included calling for an end to the monarchy and its replacement with a republican system. He received a life sentence and he was reportedly so badly tortured that he needed surgery on his jaw. During their trial the military prosecution failed to provide any evidence that the 14 used or advocated violence. Amnesty has called for their release as prisoners of conscience if their prosecution was solely linked to their right to freedom of expression and assembly.
 

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