Bahrain’s Culture of Impunity

By Anita Dhanvanthari

A now familiar story in Bahrain: another human rights defender is sentenced to jail on trumped up charges while known torturers and human rights violators walk free. This week a Bahraini court sentenced Hussain Jawad, Chairman of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights, to two years in prison and a 500 dinar fine.

Following the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011, the king ordered an independent commission, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), to investigate and submit a report on the human rights violations committed during the early part of that year. The resulting report includes 26 recommendations, calling on the kingdom to prosecute perpetrators for torturing citizens guilty only of exercising their right to peaceful protest.

Despite committing to implement all 26 recommendations, today most are still unaddressed. The ruling family and senior officials remain unaffected. Policewoman and ruling family member Sheika Noura bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa stood trial for torturing medics during the 2011 protests. However, the court of appeals ultimately acquitted her.

Bahrain does not seem bothered that it’s letting torturers off the hook while imprisoning human rights defenders.

Dozens of medics were tried and sentenced to jail on charges such as “attempting to bring down the government.” Physicians for Human Rights notes, “the culture of impunity in Bahrain has enabled gross violations of medical neutrality—the principle of noninterference with medical services in times of armed conflict and civil unrest—including detainment, arrest, and torture.”

Congress should use its influence over arms sales to pressure Bahrain to hold its people accountable for torturing medics and peaceful protestors. Members of Congress should support the aptly titled “BICI Accountability Act of 2015.” This bipartisan legislation asks the U.S. Government to halt sales of small arms, ammunition, tear gas, light weapons, and humvees to Bahrain until its government fully implements all 26 recommendations.

Widespread impunity is not only dangerous because it allows human rights violators to walk free but also because it results in self-censorship and threatens freedom of expression. Allowing top governmental officials to escape the legal consequences of their actions only endangers civil society and threatens to further destabilize the kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Although the Bahraini government has taken some steps to address torture committed during the protests, many police officers were undeservedly acquitted and many others guilty of torture have not even been tried.

Human rights defenders are frequently arrested and charged with “insulting the monarchy” and “inciting hatred against the regime” for reporting or speaking out about human rights abuses. These individuals have very little hope of redress. Unless the government holds human rights abusers, including the royal family and senior officials, accountable for their actions, Bahrain will only move further away from becoming a stable and inclusive society.


Published on December 21, 2015


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