Prospects for Reform in Question as Bahrain Human Rights Defenders Face Judicial Harassment
Washington, D.C. – On Tuesday, October 16, prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was back in court for hearings on an appeal of his conviction for taking part in “illegal gatherings,” for which he has been sentenced to three years in prison. Rajab remains in detention, where he has been since early June, and hearings in his case have now been adjourned until November 8. On the same day, Mohammed Al Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, was arrested and also charged with taking part in illegal gatherings. He was released the following day. In addition, in a court hearing on Monday, October 15, a group of 28 medics had their verdicts postponed again until January. “Bahrain’s judicial system is being used to harass and intimidate human rights defenders, interfering with their legitimate work,” said Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First. “It’s hard to see how Bahrain can steer itself out of its human rights crisis if the government continues harassing and jailing civil society leaders.” Massimino was in Bahrain last week with retired US Navy Rear Admiral John Hutson, a board member of Human Rights First. The two attended court sessions and met with a range of government officials and human rights activists, including Mohammed Al Maskati. Massimino also met with Jalila Al Salman and the family of Mahdi Abu Deeb. Al Salman and Abu Deeb are expecting verdicts on Sunday, October 21, in the appeals of their convictions in military court last year. Abu Deeb, President of the Bahrain Teachers Association (BTA), was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his part in the pro-democracy protests last year and has been held in detention throughout the appeals process. Al Salman, Vice President of the BTA, was sentenced to three years and currently is not in detention as she waits for her verdict. She told Human Rights First she was tortured into making a false confession. Al Salman and Al Maskati were among a group of Bahraini human rights activists in Geneva for the United Nations Human Rights Council session last month. The group has been the subject of a smear campaign in parts of the Bahrain media for their criticism of the human rights record of the Government of Bahrain, contributing to an environment of harassment and intimidation. Newspaper reports referred to the activists as “traitors” and suggested that they “contributed to the distortion of Bahrain’s reputation abroad.” Al Maskati reported that he received death threats by phone while in Geneva. Today Massimino and Hutson wrote to Bahrain government officials asking for clarification surrounding the circumstances of the arrest of Al Maskati. “The Bahrain government has declared repeatedly and publicly that it intends to end abuses and improve its human rights record, and it has taken some important steps towards reform. But the government’s treatment of human rights activists tells another story. Real reform will not take hold until the government stops targeting human rights defenders and drops the charges in these emblematic court cases,” said Massimino. The Bahrain government pledged to implement the recommendations of the investigative commission, led by international lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, which it convened after the uprising last year. But the government’s efforts so far have focused on creating bureaucratic processes for implementation, and have failed to produce real change that can be felt by those who are peacefully pressing for reform. “Since the government’s appearance before the Human Rights Council, at which it made additional commitments to reform, the situation on the ground has deteriorated – medics have been sent back to jail, and the leaders of Bahrain’s human rights movement are being harassed and imprisoned. If the government is serious about its commitments to reform, these steps are hugely counterproductive. ” Nabeel Rajab is a leading human rights figure in the region. He was awarded the 2011 Ion Ratui Democracy Award, from the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the 2011 Silbury Prize, from UK parliamentarians. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights also won the 2012 Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty, awarded by Human Rights First, and was nominated for the 2012 Martin Ennals Award.