BCHR take active part in the UPR 2022 Pre-session on Bahrain in Geneva

On the 31 August 2022, Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), has been selected to take part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Pre-sessions on Bahrain as well as training on the UPR, organized by the Swiss-based NGO UPR-Info.

To give context, the UPR is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. It is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. As one of the main features of the UN Human Rights Council, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed. The ultimate aim of this mechanism is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur. Currently, no other universal mechanism of this kind exists.

Asma Darwish, BCHR’s Head of Advocacy spoke in a penal and delivered an oral and written statements that have addressed how the recommendations made during Bahrain’s previous reviews have been implemented, and how the human rights situation in the country has progressed since the previous cycle. The statements concluded by suggesting recommendations that BCHR would like States to make to the Kingdom of Bahrain during the UPR Working Group in November of this year.

It is important to note here that BCHR was made aware of no consultation conducted by the Government of Bahrain to meaningfully engage the national civil society organization in the development of its national report. A partner CSO on the ground was invited to participate in three of the total workshops concerned with preparing the national plan for human rights (we are unaware of the total workshops number) organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The invitations came only three or four days before the date of each workshop, all were conducted virtually by Zoom. These workshops were attended by representatives of civil society, including some independent societies.

These three meetings cannot be described as workshops, as they were more like closed seminars, where in each meeting a number of speeches were delivered by the Ministry and other participants, most of whom are from government agencies. No draft of the national plan was presented during these seminars, nor its items were reviewed, nor the attendees’ views were requested to be included in the plan. It seemed that the Ministry priorly chose for each meeting a number of invitees to present speeches whose topics were previously determined by the Ministry itself. According to what was witnessed, all of these speeches did not touch on the content of the plan, or the speaker’s view of what the plan should include or how to implement it. In its communications, the Ministry described these speeches as “a review and discussion of a number of human rights issues”, when it was totally not the case here.

The partner CSO was not given a chance to deliver a speech at the May 7, 2020 meeting. At the meeting of October 13, 2020, the CSO was asked to present a speech of a maximum of ten minutes on a specific topic (the importance of dissemination and awareness of national plans). While this topic differs from the declared title of the workshop (The Role of National Institutions and Civil Society Organizations in Promoting and Developing Human Rights). At the meeting of March 29, 2021, a topic was identified to which the CSO is committed to deliver a speech on for no more than three minutes (the role of civil society in implementing the recommendations of the UPR and community partnership in achieving the sustainable development goals). This topic again differed from the announced workshop title: (The National Action Plan for Human Rights in Bahrain: Objectives and Priorities).

All these participations did not include meetings to discuss specific recommendations or suggestions on the subject of the national plan, and none of the reports, offers or data reviewed by the ministry or others were sent to the CSO before or after these “workshops”, and there was no mechanism for a discussion, and the unplanned interventions were limited for words of thanks and praise to the Ministry and the speakers.

The national official website dedicated for the UPR and which is ran by the ministry of foreign affairs and that it lacks clear indication of its national consultation mechanisms, where no sign for any genuine CSO engagement exists. The website in its English section is clearly lacking and is not updated since 2014.

Moving on, the statement delivered both in a written and oral forms at the United Nations’ premises in Geneva addressed the following issues:

  1. High Commissioner’s Priorities, with a focus on
    • Right to Nationality.
    • National Human Rights Mechanisms.
  2. Freedom of Expression, with a focus on press and electronic media.

On right to nationality, we followed the High Commissioner’s letter to Bahrain’s Foreign Affairs Minister, in which he highlighted the need to amend the Bahraini Citizenship Act to allow Bahraini women married to non-Bahrainis to pass their citizenship to their children, citing concerns of children becoming stateless and compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

In the previous cycle of Bahrain’s UPR, the state has received at least 18 recommendations calling on the state to eliminate/end all discrimination against women. These recommendations were supported by the Bahraini government, yet the government has not implemented them as they have not taken the appropriate measures to ensure equality towards women’s rights.

The legislation governing issues of Bahraini nationality are codified in the Bahraini Citizenship Act 1963. Amended in 1981, it states that individuals are eligible to be regarded as a Bahraini national by descent or birth. Bahraini nationality is transmitted through the male line. It is extremely difficult for Bahraini women to pass their Bahraini citizenship to their children, foreign born spouses, and stateless spouses. In 2002, Bahrain ratified CEDAW, of which Article 9 provides for women to pass their citizenship to their children. However, the Government of Bahrain has so far only extended this provision in extremely limited circumstances through exceptional royal decrees.

The slow implementation of CEDAW and the failure to implement a law allowing women to pass on their Bahraini citizenship that was previously approved by the Bahraini cabinet in 2014 only demonstrates the extreme reluctance of Bahraini authorities to permit women to transmit their Bahraini citizenship to their children, despite the fact that Bahrain voluntarily pledged to do so in 2017.

More over a number of Bahrainis risk become stateless due to their activism. The Government of Bahrain has used its powers to revoke nationality as a way to silence opposition groups, effectively taking away their rights to speak about national issues and participate in elections or civil society more generally. Several prisoners of conscience were stripped of their nationality and deported just shortly after they served their sentencing, rendering them stateless and vulnerable to the consequences of statelessness generally—e.g., ability to be employed, own land, travel, or just to live in Bahrain.

At one point in 2018, the Government of Bahrain revoked in total almost 1000 nationalities. In 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists said this practice was used to suppress freedom of expression and press as many targets of this practice were journalists and bloggers. The World Alliance for Citizen Participation stated that Bahrain has been at the forefront of states using this practice.

Particularly concerning about the Government of Bahrain’s arbitrary revocation of nationality is the lack of due process or fair trials for those involved. In 2018, a mass trial resulted in 138 citizens’ nationalities revoked and over 50 of them received life sentences. By international legal standards, it is difficult for fair trial processes to take place under mass trials, where this many people are simultaneously sentenced. In some cases, such as that of Masaud Jahromi, the defendants are not informed of the proceedings against them and are left to find out that their nationalities were revoked over text messages and in the media.

The Bahrain Citizenship Act contains broad language in its amendments that allow the state to crush forms of dissent and activism instead of the national security issues it is meant to counter. For example, the Citizenship Law states that nationality can be revoked if one causes a damage to the interests of the Kingdom and if he committed a disloyal act against the Kingdom. This was seen in February 2015, when over 72 individuals’ citizenships were revoked. Among charges of terrorism, individuals were charged with defaming brotherly countries, defaming the image of the regime, and spreading false news to hinder the rules of the constitution. More specifically, as many as 50 of these individuals were human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, academics, and religious scholars; only 20 of the defendants were truly linked to extremist groups.

By grouping human rights and political activists with alleged extremists, the Government of Bahrain blurs the lines between criminal acts and exercising one’s freedom of expression. Combined with other tools to silence dissent, such as torture and arbitrary detention, the Government of Bahrain is intentionally sending a message by tarnishing the image of activists seeking redress.

Although the King of Bahrain has restored the nationalities of around 500 individuals in 2019, it is unclear if their sentences were reduced or if they were compensated for their losses during their stateless periods. More importantly, 400 more individuals, primarily consisting of human rights defenders and activists, remain stateless due to the Government of Bahrain’s arbitrary revocation of their nationalities.

We therefore urged that the issues related to right to nationality are made prominent issues in the upcoming UPR, with a priority on arbitrary revocation of nationality and women’s inability to pass their citizenship to their children. We therefore recommended that the Government of Bahrain:

  • Amend the Bahrain Citizenship Act to allow Bahraini women married to non-Bahrainis to pass their citizenship onto their children as they voluntarily pledged in 2017
  • Continue reinstating the nationalities of individuals who had theirs arbitrarily revoked
  • Further reform excessively broad nationality and terrorism laws that create statelessness
  • Create a system by which the government can collect information and track the remaining cases of statelessness in Bahrain and the profiles of these various stateless groups.

On the issue of Bahrain’s National Human Rights Mechanisms, and during Bahrain’s examination under the third UPR cycle, the government received at least 12 recommendations on the effectiveness and independence of institutions meant to investigate allegations of mistreatment and torture. Among other recommendations, the government committed to “strengthen the independence and effectiveness of the national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles” and “promptly carry out an in-depth investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment.” All these recommendations were supported; however, the government has failed to operationalize many of these recommendations.

These recommendations led to the establishment of several governmental human rights bodies and amending the mandates of others, including the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), the Office of the Ombudsman at the Ministry of the Interior (MOI Ombudsman), and the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR). Although the establishment of these bodies was notable progress in addressing human rights violations and impunity, the overall human rights situation has not improved. Human rights violations related to freedom of expression and assembly have increased in recent years, and harassment of activists and human rights defenders continues. Most importantly, the “culture of impunity” that these bodies were supposed to address is still pervasive.

The SIU was established in 2012 specifically to hold government officials accountable for crimes of torture and ill-treatment. However, it has failed to practice independence and effectiveness, particularly in determining “superior responsibility.” The average rate for case referrals to criminal courts was 7.72 % of the total complaints received by the SIU during the last five years, most of which ended with acquittals and light sentences. Moreover, most prosecutions have been of low-ranking officers. The majority of the SIU staff are seconded from the Public Prosecution Office (PPO), under which it functions. The SIU association with the PPO adversely affects its integrity and public trust in it, particularly in light of its disregard for torture allegations and 7 prosecutions of prisoners of conscience. Moreover, the SIU does not comply with many of the Istanbul Protocol provisions, with which it is supposed to be in line.

The PDRC was established in 2013 to monitor places of incarceration. It functions as a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) and is empowered to verify the conditions and treatment of inmates. The PDRC’s independence and effectiveness have been called into question with a lack of transparency in appointing its members, its financial dependency on the MOI Ombudsman, and lack of clear judgment in its reports. It failed to demonstrate rigor, seriousness, and persistence in addressing pressing issues in detention facilities, especially the ill-treatment of political prisoners.

The MOI Ombudsman became operational in July 2013. It was created to ensure that the MOI personnel abide by the legal procedures and hold violators accountable. It is also mandated to receive, review, and examine complaints against members of the Public Security Forces. The MOI Ombudsman’s independence is also questionable, as the MOI supervises it and appoints its employees. As for its effectiveness, the MOI Ombudsman practiced reluctance and disregard for well-documented violations committed by MOI personnel, demonstrated by the number of cases referred by the MOI Ombudsman for possible criminal prosecution and the fact that only one investigation was launched on its initiative in the last five years.

The NIHR mandate was amended in 2012 and 2013 to bring it in line with the Paris Principles. It has a broad mandate to protect and promote human rights in Bahrain. Nonetheless, over the past five years, the NIHR has failed to comment or act upon serious human rights violations, including allegations of torture, the executions that followed unfair trials, prosecution of human rights defenders, and the general criminalization of dissent. On more than one occasion, the NIHR advocated for the government by justifying its abuses. It has been selective in addressing human rights violations. Overall, the NIHR has demonstrated a lack of independence and effectiveness in addressing the most pressing human rights issues in Bahrain.

The establishment of the SIU, the PDRC, and the MOI Ombudsman, besides amending the mandate of the NIHR, seemed propitious in improving the human rights scene in Bahrain. Unfortunately, their work has yet to achieve tangible results. In addition to problems with the structure of human rights mechanisms, there is a lack of rigor, courage, and seriousness in addressing violations and holding perpetrators accountable. The real problem is the lack of independence of these bodies and their staff. The lack of transparency in appointment mechanisms is shared between the four bodies, as none of them involves real and active participation by the civil society or even parliament, and if any, it is unclear. These bodies are formed by the government and report to it, which renders their ability to challenge the government security apparatuses unlikely.

Moreover, none of them adopted clear follow-up procedures, whether for complaints or implementing their recommendations by concerned governmental bodies, negatively impacting their effectiveness. The small number of individuals who have been brought to justice in the past five years, the failure to uphold the principle of superior responsibility, and the reluctance to address certain human rights violations indicate that these bodies, in their current state, are neither independent nor effective. They have not been designed to genuinely guarantee effectiveness and independence in addressing human rights violations. Three out of four of them are associated with the Ministry of Interior (MOI).

The opinion presented by the UN Committee Against Torture concerning these bodies reflects well their state: “The Committee is concerned that [Bahraini national human rights bodies] are not independent, that their mandates are unclear and overlap, and that they are not effective given that complaints ultimately pass through the Ministry of the Interior. It is also concerned that their activities have had little or no effect, and that the authorities provided negligible information regarding the outcome of their activities. The Committee is further concerned about the loopholes in the existing complaints mechanisms whereby prison inmates have to submit complaints regarding torture or ill-treatment through prison wardens, the prison Director or Deputy Director, which does not guarantee that the complaints will be submitted to the competent authorities.”

We believe in order to address these issues; the government of Bahrain has to:

  • Ensure redress for human rights violations victims and an end to the “culture of impunity”;
  • Ensure the complete independence of the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) from the Public Prosecution Office by amending its statutory status and adopting a transparent mechanism for appointing impartial staff.
  • Adopting greater transparency in clarifying the outcomes of complaints received by the SIU and the follow-up procedures taken, as well as justifying its decisions regarding complaints.
  • Ensure the independence and effectiveness of the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission by modifying it into a National Preventive Mechanism within the meaning of the OPCAT and which functions under the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) oversight.
  • Ensure the independence of the Office of the Ombudsman at the Ministry of the Interior (MOI Ombudsman) by ending the Ministry of Interior’s oversight of its work and the appointment and dismissal of its employees.
  • Adopt a transparent and merit-based mechanism for the MOI Ombudsman staff appointment for limited terms that involves a public call.
  • Ensure the MOI Ombudsman reports are more detailed and transparent in terms of the reasons for dismissing complaints and detailed results of its investigations.
  • Establish a clear mechanism for the screening, selection, and appointment process of the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) Council of Commissioners.
  • Ensure the NIHR independence and responsiveness in carrying out its mandate.
  • Establish a transparent follow-up mechanism for the recommendations of these institutions, ensuring that responsibility for failure to address the violations committed is determined.
  • Allow a periodic impartial review of their work by an autonomous body.

Lastly on the topic of freedom of expression, press and electronic media, during Bahrain’s third UPR cycle, the Government of Bahrain voluntarily pledged to work on “a new law on the press and the electronic media.” First of all, the wording of their commitment is vague. However, in reviewing recent trends in Bahrain’s monitoring of and criminalization of dissent online, it is unlikely that new laws, if any, will fall in line with international human rights norms. Specifically, on the Government of Bahrain’s criminalization of dissent on social media and use of spyware to target human rights defenders and civil society.

During the third UPR cycle, Recommendation 114.98 and 114.104 centered on protect freedom of speech online. Both supported by the Government of Bahrain, they have not been implemented as Bahrain continues to prosecute individuals who voice their opinions online, such as through social media. Most notably, former BCHR President Nabeel Rajab was sentenced in 2018 to five years’ imprisonment solely for his social media posts in 2015 that accused the Bahraini authorities of torture in Jau Prison and criticized Saudi air strikes on Yemeni civilians.

Rajab’s prosecution is part of the Government of Bahrain’s larger crackdown on social media. In May 2019, the Government of Bahrain directed its security forces to end the “misuse of social media” and “guarantee an end to electronic accounts harmful to society’s security.” On the same day, the MOI announced they were pursuing legal action against owners of “social media accounts that tended to encourage sedition and harm civil peace, social fabric and stability,” even naming two activists-in-exile: Sayed Yusuf Al-Muhafdha and Hasan AbdulNabi (Al- Sitri), living in exile in Germany and Australia respectively. What is more concerning is the MOI further warned that “providing false information from within the country and promoting their messages” would result in legal action as well, joining several authoritarian countries around the world who have used misinformation laws to criminalize opposition speech and dissent. Put simply, the MOI’s threat was a blanket statement that could apply to anybody who either communicates with activists in exile or even re-Tweets their content.

In the following weeks, the MOI issued more threats against “harmful” online activity, this time threatening to prosecute individuals for simply following “biased” pages. The same day, the MOI’s Cyber Security Directorate disseminated texts to Bahraini residents with the same warning. Bahrain’s crackdown on social media was severe enough that it prompted a reply from Twitter’s global public policy team, who said Bahrain’s actions “poses a significant threat to free expression and journalism.”

Even prior to this UPR cycle, the Government of Bahrain has had a well-documented history of exploiting spyware technologies to target civil society, human rights defenders, political opposition groups, and journalists. Most recently in 2021, the Government of Bahrain was found to have used NSO Group Technologies’ notorious Pegasus spyware to spy on civil society members. Pegasus can be installed onto an individual’s mobile phone without their knowledge, allowing the malware’s operators to remotely extract the phone’s contents. BCHR had confirmed with Amnesty International’s Security Lab that at least five of its members have had their devices infected with Pegasus.

However, none of the third cycle’s themes focus on the abuse of spyware or surveillance against civil society. Thus, it is essential that a spyware clause that protects the targeting of innocent civilians, particularly dissidents, is included in any new electronic media laws that Bahrain passes.

Ultimately, the Government of Bahrain has only increased its restrictions on free expression since the start of its second UPR cycle. Activists and journalists remain at an extremely high risk of arrest and imprisonment for doing their jobs or expressing their opinions in any –medium – from print to social media. We therefore find that the government has entirely failed to implement its first, second and third cycle recommendations to protect freedom expression, media, and press. The Government of Bahrain should:

  • Repeal or substantially amend legislation, decrees, or other regulations that permit expansive restrictions on free expression and free press.
  • Promulgate a new media law that fully enshrines the right to free expression in all media and removes vague offences that can be interpreted to include forms of legitimate free expression.
  • Eliminate arbitrary and redundant licensing policies for media outlets and journalists.
  • Limit the censorship power of the IAA and other media oversight bodies.
  • Release all wrongfully imprisoned journalists, photographers, human rights defenders, and social media activists.
  • Cease mass online filtering and reinstate arbitrarily blocked websites.
  • Allow foreign press to report freely from Bahrain.

The statement delivered by Darwish concluded by saying: “The full and honest implementation of the recommendations was supposed to pave the way for a new era in Bahrain, where human rights are respected and accountability achieved. Nonetheless, since 2011, the human rights situation has been deteriorating. More than ten years on, pro-democracy movement leaders are still behind bars, major opposition political parties outlawed, and the country’s only independent newspaper is indefinitely suspended. The Government of Bahrain’s crackdown on free expression is in full force, as well as attempts to intimidate its critics into silence. The government officials responsible for killing dozens of protesters and torturing hundreds have not been held accountable, nor have those who directed the crackdown, as the government human rights bodies have proved ineffective. Most importantly, the grievances that sparked the 2011 uprising remain unaddressed. On the contrary, the Government of Bahrain has escalated its repression, systematically and thoroughly closing civil and political space”.

In reviewing several of the High Commissioner’s priorities following Bahrain’s third UPR cycle, we find that none of the recommendations we survey here, including those Bahrain had supported or even voluntarily pledged to, have been successfully and meaningfully implemented. In fact, recent events such as the Pegasus revelations have exposed even greater human rights issues within the themes that Bahrain had supported and voluntarily pledged to, particularly within the realm of respecting international levels of human rights and freedoms.