EU should press for prisoners releases as it meets in Bahrain

‘It would be a slap in the face for many Bahrainis if EU officials were to visit Bahrain and not publicly call for the release of prisoners of conscience’ - Nicolas Berger

Amnesty International has urged the EU to speak out about prisoners of conscience being held in Bahrain as it hold its annual EU-Gulf states meeting in Bahrain.

EU and officials from Gulf countries are in Bahrain for the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, a meeting located just a few miles from the jail where prisoners of conscience - including prominent opposition leaders and human rights activists - are being held.

Amnesty fears that the EU foreign policy head, Catherine Ashton, and EU foreign ministers will fail to make full use of the opportunity to address the human rights situation in Bahrain or to call publicly for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience. The issue of human rights violations is not on the agenda of the meeting or properly addressed in EU statements.

Amnesty International European Institutions Office Director Nicolas Berger said:

“Bahrain is engulfed in a human rights crisis: the opposition is jailed, protests are repressed, torture is rife and impunity rampant.

“Yet the Bahraini authorities prefer to invest in public relations rather than address their abysmal human rights record.

“It would be a slap in the face for many Bahrainis if EU officials were to visit Bahrain and not publicly call for the release of prisoners of conscience.

“Following a recent visit to Bahrain of the European Union Special Representative for human rights, the EU must not go on with business as usual and should seize this opportunity to press Bahrain on its human rights record.”

At least 20 prisoners of conscience are currently behind bars in Bahrain two years after 2011’s largely peaceful anti-government protests were brutally suppressed. These include prominent opposition leaders such as Shaikh Hassan Meshaima’, Shaikh Abdelwahab Hussain, Dr Abdeljalil al-Singace, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Ebrahim Sharif and Mahdi Abu Deeb as well as Nabeel Rajab, the well-known human rights defender. Some have been detained for life, solely for leading or calling for peaceful anti-government protests, including via social media.

Many of the prisoners of conscience were allegedly tortured in the first weeks of arrests. Some have been denied proper medical care and visits by their families and lawyers because of their refusal to wear prison uniforms which they regard as an admission of guilt. 

Meanwhile, Children's rights as young as 15 have been tried as adults and put in prisons for adults, in violation of Bahrain’s obligations to treat all child suspects in accordance with the rules and principles of juvenile justice. Women have also been imprisoned. Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of prominent activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, has been jailed until at least February next year for her non-violent anti-government activities.

Human rights violations have largely remained unpunished since the mass protests of 2011.  Of 96 alleged official investigations into torture and deaths of protesters and detainees around the time of the protests, 46 cases have been dismissed due to lack of evidence or because the death was considered to have been caused by “an act of legitimate self-defence”.

No Bahraini senior security or army officer has been brought to justice. Only a handful of low-ranking security officers - mostly of foreign origin who were given Bahraini nationality - have been tried. Most were given lenient sentences and are free pending appeals.

The Bahraini government regularly claims it is “still undergoing major reforms”. Last April the Bahraini authorities cancelled a planned visit by the United Nations’ torture expert for a second time. Bahrain’s Human Rights Minister defended this decision by arguing that the visit could have had a potentially negatively impact on any political dialogue in the country. At the last session of the UN Human Rights Council, 43 states criticised ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain.

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