1. Executive Summary
The state of the rights to peaceful assembly and association is dim in Bahrain. More than two decades ago, the Bahraini government promised its citizens political reform and a democratic transition. But in 2022, Bahrain is more repressive than ever. Notwithstanding the numerous international and regional obligations that it holds to protect and promote the freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the government of Bahrain has systematically dismantled political opposition and cracked down on dissent. Demonstration permits are required to assemble; even then, protestors face being forcibly dispersed by security forces or long sentences through overly vague and exploited national security laws. Since their violent crackdown on the 2011 pro-democracy uprising, thousands of individuals have been convicted for their expressing their conscience. Notably, twelve of the country’s most prominent Shia religious and political leaders are imprisoned—eleven of which have been detained since 2011 for their participation in pro-democracy protests.
Concerningly, given the upcoming November 2022 parliamentary elections, political opposition groups have been dissolved—notably, Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad, the two most popular political societies in Bahrain—its leaders are imprisoned, and those previously affiliated with banned political societies are denied their right to participate in political life. Those affiliated with these groups critical of the government have even been deported by neighboring states to face punishment in Manama. Bahraini authorities have also directed its security forces to “end the misuse of social media,” resulting in the harassment and imprisonment its critics online. The case studies examine the long-term imprisonment of three prominent human rights defenders for attempting to peacefully assemble or for their associations with political groups.
2. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association in Bahrain
The government of Bahrain has a number of international and regional obligations to protect the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in Bahrain, including under Article 24 of the 2004 Arab Charter on Human Rights, Articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Bahrain on 20 September 2006, as well as non-legally binding instruments such as Article 20(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and Articles 5 and 6 of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.Despite these obligations, the government of Bahrain has acted in contravention in their deprivation of human rights defenders, journalists, religious leaders, and civil society at-large of their rights to the freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
The freedom of peaceful assembly is virtually non-existent in Bahrain as government-issued permits are required to hold demonstrations. Even when permits are granted, authorities forcibly break up political protests and impose its participants with long sentences. As a case in point, on 30 April 2021, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an investigation over “the use of unnecessary and disproportionate force by police special forces to dismantle a peaceful sit-in in Bahrain’s Jau prison on 17 April.” The sit-in, meant to protest against prison conditions after the death of a prisoner of conscience—Abbas Mal Allah—resulted in the severe beating and the incommunicado detention of dozens of inmates.
The freedom of association is similarly repressed in Bahrain. Bahrainis resort to forming political “societies” after the government outlawed formal political parties. However, nearly all political societies have been ordered to shut down in Bahrain, including the most popular ones: Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad).
Al-Wefaq was one of the largest political opposition societies in Bahrain until its dissolution in 2016. Founded in 2002 after the Sunni-led monarchy promised its citizens political and constitutional reforms, Bahrain ordered Al-Wefaq’s closure, claiming the political group supported violence, tarnished the reputation of governmental bodies, and instigated hatred against the monarchy. In December 2021, Lebanon deported foreign Al-Wefaq members back to Bahrain to avoid “spreading hatred or hostility” toward other Arab and Gulf countries. Moreover, Wa’ad, established in 2001 by Abdulrahman Al-Nuaimi, was one of Bahrain’s few secular political societies and was likewise banned in 2018. In both cases, members of political societies were banned from participating in elections and deprived of their rights to political life. Nongovernmental organizations likewise need a permit to operate in Bahrain, and even when one is granted, activists and their family members are harassed and prosecuted.
3. Case Studies
(a) Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja
Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a human rights defender and a former president of BCHR. Until the 2011 pro-democracy uprising, he was also a coordinator with Frontline Defenders. In April 2011, Al-Khawaja was arrested without a warrant and jailed for 20 days without a lawyer. He was charged with the “[e]stablishment, administration and membership of an illegal group” that aimed to “overthrow and change the country’s political system by force, using terrorism as a means to achieve its goals” and “[a]ttempting to overthrow and change the Constitution of the State and the monarchy by force.” On 22 June 2011, Al-Khawaja was sentenced to life imprisonment. The following year, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Al-Khawaja had been arbitrary detained and that his arrest was due to his exercise of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.
(b) Naji Fateel
Naji Fateel is a prominent activist and board member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), which has worked to promote youth involvement in Bahrain’s struggle for human rights since 2005. In May 2013, Fateel was arrested in his home in Bani Jamra and was reportedly tortured, sexually harassed, and interrogated without a lawyer. He was charged, among other things, with the “establishment of a group whose purpose is to undermine the provisions of the Constitution and the law and to restrict the personal freedoms of citizens, using terrorism as a means to achieve its goals” and “unlawful assembly.”
Initially, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment only for his “attendance at illegal gatherings.” However, he was subsequently tried under terrorism charges in July 2013 and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment that September. However, after allegedly “assault[ing]” prison officers and “damag[ing] prison property” during the March 2015 Jau Prison riots, Fateel was sentenced to another 10 years for a combined 25-year sentence.
(c) Sheikh Ali Salman
Sheikh Ali Salman is the Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq and a Twelver Shia cleric, a key religious figure in Bahrain. He was reportedly tortured, detained without trial, and exiled in 1994 for over 15 years. Since the 2011 uprising, he has been arrested at least four times. On 28 December 2014 Salman was arrested again, just two days after his re-election as Secretary-General and having called for a democratic regime and accountability. He was charged for “inciting a change of regime by non-peaceful means,” and “insulting the Ministry of Interior.” Salman was initially sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in June 2015. However, but in September, the Appeals Court more than doubled his sentence from four to nine years. In 2018, Salman was sentenced to life imprisonment on alleged spying charges for his international advocacy efforts in Qatar. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have concluded that Salman’s detention violated his freedom of peaceful assembly and association as well as several other fundamental rights under the UDHR and ICCPR.
The rights to the freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are severely repressed in Bahrain. The U.N. has issued several findings as such, including through the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The Bahraini government justifies its campaign against dissent, including the criminalization of political associations and imprisonment of its critics, through a vague and abusive elaboration of its anti-terrorism and national security laws—each giving rise to further human rights violations in contravention of legally-binding instruments like the ICCPR. All things considered, FoAA violations are the norm, not the exception, in Bahrain.
The government of Bahrain must immediately and unconditionally release prisoners of conscience in Bahrain (including those listed as case studies herein), end the prohibition of political societies and the stripping of political rights of its affiliates, and reform its national security laws in line with Bahrain international human rights obligations. As long as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Naji Fateel, and Ali Salman continue to sit behind bars, the U.N. and other international and national actors must place increasing pressure on Bahrain to protect the fundamental freedoms of assembly and of association.
 U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the League of Arab States, Arab Charter on Human Rights (Geneva: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2004), [ST/HR/]CHR/NONE/2004/40/Rev.1.
 U.N. General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, at 171, https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3aa0.html.
 U.N. General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3712c.html.
 U.N. General Assembly, Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 8 March 1999, A/RES/53/144, https://www.refworld.org/docid/3b00f54c14.html.
 U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Press briefing notes on Bahrain, 30 April 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/en/2021/04/press-briefing-notes-bahrain. See also, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, et al., Inside Jau: Government Brutality in Bahrain’s Central Prison, (May 2015), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CAT/Shared%20Documents/BHR/INT_CAT_CSS_BHR_26958_E.pdf.
 U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Press briefing, 30 April 2021.
 Bahrain Center for Human Rights, et al., “NGOs Strongly Condemn Bahrain’s Government Closure of Al-Wefaq,” 14 June 2016, http://bahrainrights.org/en/node/7898?_ga=2.222480667.1243052938.1623686284-1980935993.1623686284.
 “Bahrain charges opposition leader with ‘spying,’” Al Jazeera, 1 November 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/1/bahrain-charges-opposition-leader-with-spying.
 “Lebanon to deport members of banned Bahraini group Al-Wefaq,” Al Jazeera, 15 December 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/15/lebanon-set-to-deport-non-lebanese-members-of-bahrain-opposition.
 Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, “Bahraini Appeals Court Confirms Dissolution of Wa’ad, Last Major Opposition Group,” 26 October 2017, https://www.adhrb.org/2017/10/bahraini-appeals-court-confirms-dissolution-of-waad-last-major-opposition-group/.
 See National Safety Court, Case No. 11/2011/1415. Government of Bahrain, Explanatory note, 28 June 2021, HRC/NONE/2021/SP/52, https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadFile?gId=36397.
 U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its sixty-third session, 30 April–4 May 2012, 13 July 2012, A/HRC/WGAD/2012/6.
 See, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Communication (Bahrain) AL BHR 2/2021, 3 May 2021, at 5.
 See, Case No. 7201305737. Government of Bahrain, Explanatory note, 28 June 2021.
 U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, “Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its seventy-third session, 31 August– 4 September 2015,” No.23/2015 (Bahrain), 17 September 2015, at 6, para. 32.
 Ibid., at 2, para. 7.
 Columbia University, Global Freedom of Expression, “The Case of Sheikh Ali Salman [Bahrain],” https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/the-case-of-ali-salman/.
 Amnesty International, “Bahreïn. Le leader de l’opposition Ali Salman illégalement condamné,” 4 November 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/fr/latest/press-release/2018/11/bahrain-opposition-leader-sheikh-ali-salman-unlawfully-convicted/.
 U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, “Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its seventy-third session, 31 August– 4 September 2015,” No.23/2015 (Bahrain), 17 September 2015, at 6, para. 33; U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Bahrain: UN rights experts urge release of opposition politician detained for peaceful expression,” 4 February 2015, https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2015/02/bahrain-un-rights-experts-urge-release-opposition-politician-detained.