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Analyzing the US State Department’s 2015 Bahrain human rights report

 “Local and international observers and human rights organizations continued to view the BICI report as a standard against which to measure the country’s progress on human rights reforms.”
 

The US State Department has issued its annual report on human rights in Bahrain for 2015, as part of its global human rights survey. It makes interesting reading, first for acknowledging the progress which has been made by Bahraini institutions like the Ombudsman’s Office and the National Institution for human rights, but also for looking into important issues like women’s rights, migrant rights and addressing corruption.

However, in certain areas the report can be criticized for uncritically publishing unfounded claims made by opposition societies like the BCHR, such as its incorrect allegations about election boundaries and unjustified claims about sectarian discrimination, particularly with regard to academic scholarships and composition of the Parliament. Below we look at many of the significant quotes by the report and make a number of observations:

Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

“Violent extremists perpetrated dozens of attacks against security officers and government officials during the year, killing three security officers and injuring many others. On July 28, a remotely detonated bomb in Sitra killed two police officers and wounded six others. On August 28, two homemade bombs in the village of Karanah killed a police officer and wounded seven others, including three civilians.”

“There were no reports that government security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings”.

“Six Ministry of Interior personnel, including three high-ranking officers, received jail terms ranging from one to five years for the November 2014 beating death of inmate Hasan al-Shaikh at Jaw Prison’s Reform and Rehabilitation Center.”

CfB comment: Important to see recognition of the one-sided pattern of violence in Bahrain. However, it is also vital to see the police held accountable when they are found to be at fault.

Disappearance

“There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.”

CfB comment: This contradicts a very noisy opposition campaign about “forced disappearances”. This report wrongly describes the BCHR as a human rights group. Despite its name, it is transparently part of the opposition and its statements and claims should be understood accordingly.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

“In November the government reported that 504 community police recruits graduated from the Royal Police Academy during the year, bringing the total number of community police to approximately 1,500. The formation of the community police program, which recruits individuals to work in their own neighborhoods, responded to the BICI report recommendation on integrating Shia citizens into police forces.”

“In 2012 the interior minister approved a new police code of conduct that requires officers to abide by 10 principles, including limited use of force and zero tolerance for torture and mistreatment. According to government officials, the code forbids the use of force “except when absolutely necessary.” The Royal Police Academy included the code in its curriculum in 2012 and provided new recruits with copies in English and Arabic. The Ministry of Interior reported it took disciplinary action against officers who did not comply with the code.”

“Ministry of Interior participated in training courses at the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences in Siracusa, Italy. Ministry officers continued to receive human rights training.”

Improvements in prison monitoring

“Authorities granted the Northern Ireland Cooperation Organization and other international organizations access to prison facilities throughout the year. Authorities permitted access for the NIHR, Ombudsman’s Office, and PDRC, as well as the SIU.”

“The Ombudsman’s Office, PDRC, and SIU expanded the number of abuse cases each undertook to investigate and received greater access to prisons, to interview detainees and prisoners, and to question security personnel. The ombudsman opened a permanent office at Jaw Prison to accept prisoner complaints. New buildings at Jaw Prison helped reduce prison overcrowding, and prisoners 21 years old and younger were moved from Jaw Prison into new buildings at the Dry Dock facility. There were increased educational opportunities for prisoners of all ages.”

Special Investigations Unit

“The SIU, formed in 2012, acts as a mechanism for the public to complain about prisoner mistreatment or conditions in prisons and detention facilities. The SIU reported it received 227 complaints through October, eight of which it referred to court; the remainder remained under investigation.”

“As of October the government reported the SIU had investigated 227 incidents, of which eight cases had gone to court; the rest were either still under investigation or were closed. Of those that went to court, one case was acquitted, and the SIU appealed the verdict. The Ministry of Interior reported as of year’s end, 32 police officers were in jail, including 22 convicted in the security court and 10 convicted in civilian criminal courts. Another 21 officers awaited trial. The ministry also reported that, since issuance of the BICI report in 2011, the government fired 27 officers for misconduct and reassigned eight.” 

Office of the Ombudsman

“The Office of the Ombudsman began monitoring prisons and detention centers in 2013, conducting announced and unannounced visits and accepting written and in-person complaints. From May 2014 until April, the office received 908 complaints.”

“The Ombudsman reported it received 84 complaints against the CID and 83 against Jaw Prison from May 2014 to May. The Ombudsman referred 40 of the cases against the CID and 24 against Jaw Prison for criminal or disciplinary procedures; 50 more cases were still under investigation.”

National Institution for Human Rights

“In line with the BICI report recommendations, the king issued a royal decree in 2013 to re-establish the country’s National Human Rights Organization, now called the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), to receive complaints and investigate allegations of human rights violations. Throughout the year the NIHR conducted numerous human rights workshops, seminars, and training sessions, as well as prison visits, and referred numerous complaints to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.”

“In its second annual report the NIHR reported it received 88 complaints representing 119 complainants for 2014 and an additional 124 requests for assistance and legal advice. Separately, the NIHR reported it visited Jaw prison and interviewed more than 40 prisoners, and that it had followed complaints from inmates’ families regarding alleged denial of medical treatment.”

Elections and Political Participation

“The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ limited ability to change their government peacefully.”

CfB comment Bahrain is a Constitutional Monarchy with an elected Parliament. Numerous countries in the world, including the US, do not have a directly-elected Government. However, MPs have the powers for votes of no confidence in Ministers and their policies. The checks and balances in Bahrain’s system are necessary to prevent any one faction compromising the rights and freedoms of others.”

“Approximately 52 percent of eligible voters participated in parliamentary elections held in November 2014. Turnout was significantly lower in opposition districts, due to a decision to boycott by the main opposition political societies… The opposition contended the government delineated voter districts to provide for its desired electoral outcomes and marginalize opposition-majority districts… Monitors generally concluded that authorities administered the elections without significant irregularities. There were, however, broader concerns regarding voting district boundaries.”

CfB comment: The report repeatedly criticizes election boundaries without apparently understanding the current situation. CfB conducted an in depth study of the 2014 constituency reforms and found them to be far-reaching in addressing past failings, with 90% of constituencies containing balanced numbers of constituents.

“Violent oppositionists intimidated candidates, including through arson attacks on their personal property and businesses. Boycotters pressured other candidates to withdraw from the race.”

Shia and Sunni citizens have equal rights before the law, but Sunnis dominated political life, while the majority of citizens are Shia. There were 13 Shia members in the newly elected parliament. The newly appointed Shura Council included 17 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member”.

CfB comment: Wrong to accept the opposition claim that Sunnis “dominate” political life. The report shows that in the appointed Parliament there were similar numbers of Shia and Sunnis, while in the elected Parliament it is hardly fair for the opposition to call for a boycott and then claim that their constituencies are underrepresented.

Jaw prison riot

“On March 10, hundreds of prisoners at Jaw Prison participated in a riot… The ministry released video that showed prisoners shoved guards out of cellblocks, barricaded doors, and threw projectiles at police from the roof. The ministry reported the riot left 104 inmates and 141 police injured, with two police seriously wounded. The riot caused significant damage to parts of the prison.” 

Arrest procedures

“The Ministry of Interior reported authorities registered the location of detainees from the moment of arrest. Authorities generally allowed prisoners to file complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, and officials from the Ombudsman’s Office were available to respond to complaints.”

Trial Procedures

“The constitution presumes defendants are innocent until proven guilty. By law authorities should inform detainees of the charges against them upon arrest. Civil and criminal trial procedures provide for a public trial. There are no jury trials. A panel of three judges makes the rulings. Defendants have the right to prompt consultation with an attorney of their choice within 48 hours.” 

Women’s rights

“No government policies or laws explicitly address domestic violence... Authorities devoted little public attention to the problem. The government maintained the Dar al-Aman Shelter for women and children who were victims of domestic violence.”

“Women faced discrimination under the law. A woman cannot transmit nationality to her spouse or children. Women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings, but both Shia and Sunni religious courts may refuse the request, although the refusal rate was significantly higher in Shia courts than in Sunni courts, with Shia courts often refusing to grant the divorce due to differences in legal codes.” 

“The basis for family law is sharia as interpreted by Sunnis and Shia. Only Sunni family law is codified, while Shia maintain separate judicial bodies composed of religious jurisprudents charged with interpreting sharia. It was not always clear which courts have jurisdiction in Sunni-Shia marriages.”

CfB comment: The issue of women’s rights is vital to raise. However, the US State Dept seems to be unaware of the legislative context. There is no mention of new laws passed in 2015 which make huge progress in addressing domestic violence as well as ongoing reforms to nationality laws and the recently enhanced ratification of CEDAW which has been under discussion since early 2014. The report glosses over the fierce opposition of political societies like Al-Wefaq which resulted in the absence of a family law for the Shia community. The refusal to grant divorce when there are solid grounds and the administration of legal affairs by religious scholars are issues which deserve serious attention.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

“Human rights advocates claimed the government unfairly distributed university scholarships and used anti-Shia bias when admitting students into certain programs.”

CfB comment: The opposition over the last year has insistently been making such a claim, despite the fact that media reporting demonstrates scholarships going to both Shia and Sunni citizens.

Freedom of Assembly

“The opposition group Al-Wifaq reported police refused to consider more than 131 applications from January through October; its last approval for a march came in December 2014.”

CfB comment: When a single organization submits applications for 131 rallies in just a few months, this shows that the authorities are right to exercise discrimination in not simply allowing groups to disrupt traffic and public areas with continual demos which usually gave way to violent rioting.

Corruption and Lack of Transparency

“The Bahrain National Audit Bureau is responsible for combating government corruption… On March 8, legislators announced they were going to investigate alleged excessive expenditure of BD 400 million dinars of public funds by government departments and state-linked companies…  the report said the bureau had referred five “major” cases of suspected corruption to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for investigation, but it gave no details on the cases… The Ministry of Interior announced it had transferred 64 corruption cases to the Public Prosecutor’s Office during the year.”

CfB comment: Good to emphasize that we shouldn’t tolerate the same abuses being cited in the Audit Bureau report year after year.

Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

“The labor law covers foreign workers, except domestic workers, but enforcement was lax, and cases of debt bondage were common. There were also reports forced labor practices occurred among domestic workers and others working in the informal sector; labor laws did not protect most of these workers. In 2012 the government amended the labor law to provide domestic workers the right to see their terms of employment. In many cases employers withheld passports, restricted movement, substituted contracts, or did not pay wages; some employers also threatened workers and subjected them to physical and sexual abuse. The Ministry of Labor reported complaints from domestic workers, mostly of unpaid wages. In 2013 the Ministry of Social Development took steps to fulfill its legal obligation under the trafficking in persons law to identify and protect foreign victims of trafficking.”

CfB comment: Full agreement that this file must be dealt with as a matter of priority.

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