Why human rights matter – the silenced struggle in Bahrain

We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Debbie Kohner.  Debbie is Equality Programme Officer at the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ).


Why human rights matter – the silenced struggle in Bahrain

Last week I was refused entry to Bahrain. With a European passport, we almost expect to enter foreign countries with ease, but my refusal was not due to strict immigration controls. The security service ejected me, and a French lawyer colleague, but no airline has any record of our journey. We were ejected due to our work as human rights defenders.

The very concept of human rights has been much debated and maligned of late, but the ongoing situation in Bahrain serves as a stark reminder of their importance. Human rights are international standards which provide an agreed minimum protection for all people, without distinction. When our own rights are generally well respected, the safeguards they offer us can easily be forgotten. When others’ rights are not respected, they often do not have a voice to explain their struggle.

In February 2011, tens of thousands of Bahraini citizens took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration for democracy. The state reacted forcefully, with reports of attacks on civilians, mass arrests, torture, deaths and the repression of any opposition to these acts. Over 1,400 people have been detained and 39 people have died as a result. Most recently, it was reported that 14 year old Ali Jawad Ahmad al-Shaikh died after being hit by a tear gas canister thrown by riot police.

In March 2011, the King of Bahrain declared a state of national emergency. The state authorities, backed up by the Gulf Cooperation Council, used tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition and brute force to disperse crowds. The injured were brought to Salmaniya hospital, but the security forces used their injuries to identify the protestors. Reports show they locked down the hospital, prevented ambulances from reaching the injured and frustrated the treatment of patients already admitted. Some patients have since disappeared and others have reported being beaten by the security forces.

Following the crackdown, there have been mass arrests of those involved in the demonstrations or speaking out in their defence. In addition, websites have been closed down and journalists cannot report freely on the situation. Thousands of employees have been sacked. There has been a particular targeting of political opponents, human rights defenders and the medical staff at Salmaniya hospital who treated the injured. An independent commission has been mandated to report on the events, but the brutal crackdown continues despite its ongoing work.

Many of those arrested have been held incommunicado or in solitary confinement. They have had restricted access to lawyers and many have reported torture and other ill-treatment. One detainee, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, is a former director of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. He was arrested on 9 April 2011, after being severely beaten by masked policemen in front of a witness. Since his detention, he has reported torture and sexual abuse and required surgery for his injuries.

Trials have taken place before a military court, set up under the state of emergency. Although such a court should not be used to try civilians, 21 human rights defenders and 20 medical staff have been convicted of disparate offences; some have been sentenced to life in prison. The UN described the trials as ‘political persecution’. On the reading of his verdict, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja stated that he would ‘continue on the path of peaceful resistance’. In response, he was severely beaten by court officers, particularly to his face which was still recovering from his previous injuries.

Last week, hearings took place to challenge the sentences. The International Federation of Human Rights mandated me, as an independent observer, to monitor whether the principles of a fair trial were applied. We were also asked to meet the detainees. It is understood that their health is deteriorating and many are on hunger strike, to protest against their arbitrary detention, unfair trials and the brutal crackdown against Bahraini citizens. I was not permitted to observe the trials or meet with the detainees and I am deeply concerned about their treatment.

As we watch events unfold in Libya, we must not forget the silenced struggle in Bahrain. Journalists cannot report freely on events and international observers, such as my French colleague and I, cannot enter the country. On being ejected from Bahrain, we received over 50 text messages from unknown Bahraini citizens, apologising for our treatment by their government and thanking us for our efforts to help their dire situation. I was humbled that they could offer so much support, when they are suffering such hardship and repression.

We are lucky that our basic human rights are generally respected, due in part to the ongoing scrutiny of the content and application of our laws and policies. We have freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to peaceful protest against the state. There is no widespread arbitrary detention or torture, and we are usually guaranteed the right to a fair trial. As we enjoy these fundamental freedoms, which we can often take for granted, it is important to remember those whose basic human rights are not respected.

The Bahraini authorities appear to be hiding the treatment of their citizens, through silencing them, journalists, and international observers. However, the voices of the Bahraini citizens cannot be fully silenced. If the international community takes note, the Bahraini authorities will be under more pressure to respect its citizens’ human rights. Indeed, the detained medical staff were released last week (albeit without an acquittal), largely in response to action by doctors in the West to support them. Therefore, despite my refused entry to Bahrain, I will endeavour to hear the voices of its people’s struggle.