IT is a tiny country, often forgotten. A country where lives a frustrated population, tired of being subjected to arbitrary measures and repression.
A country which, for the past two years now, has been living to the beat of crack-downs, demonstrations and tear gas shootings...
I visited this island nation, Bahrain, twice since February 14, 2011, when the popular uprising began. I first went, in April 2012, to meet with my friend and colleague Nabeel Rajab, FIDH Deputy Secretary General and Director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as well as other human rights defenders, victims and government officials.
Nabeel is one of the most prominent human rights activist in his country and was able to provide me with direct accounts of what had been happening in his country over the previous year. For years, he has been striving to reveal and denounce the abuses of the Bahraini authorities. My second trip was a very difficult one: I went in September 2012 to observe Nabeel’s trial. In July 2012, Nabeel was arrested for participating in or supporting “illegal gatherings” – or exercising his right to freedom of association. He was denied bail at the hearing I attended in September. In December 2012, an appeals court sentenced him to two years in prison for having called for and participated in peaceful demonstrations.
Today, Nabeel has become a symbol of the regime's repressive measures.
There are dozens of other Bahrainis who, like him, are languishing in prison for having marched in the street. Among those arbitrarily arrested are human rights defenders who, just like Nabeel, have become targets of the regime. In recent months, as one leading human rights defender after another was arrested for doing no more than exercising their fundamental rights of expression and association, it has seemed like the surest way to prison in Bahrain was to be a human rights defender. Woe be those who speak for the oppressed!
Under pressure from the international community, in July 2011 the highest Bahraini authorities mandated a group of international independent experts to investigate the events of 2011. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published its report in November 2011. The repression and practices put in place by the regime are clearly identified: arbitrary arrests, torture, ill treatments, lack of access to independent courts respecting fundamental fair trial principles, unfair dismissals. The list is long.
The BICI did not just document facts; it also addressed to the authorities a number of recommendations, including to review and commute or drop charges related to political expression, to review all convictions and sentences issued by the National Security Court in ordinary courts, to establish an independent and impartial body to investigate all claims of torture and similar mistreatment, to ensure those arrested have prompt access to counsel and are informed of the legal basis for their arrest, redress for the families of those killed, and the establishment of a national dialogue between the various parties.
Supported by the international community and human rights organizations, these recommendations have been formally approved by the King of Bahrain. However, over a year has passed and the recommendations have yet to be meaningfully implemented. Instead, arrests continue and the count of those killed since the uprising began in February 2011 now exceeds 80.
Let's be clear – the release of prisoners of conscience – the many human rights defenders – is a prerequisite to ending this crisis. Without that, the tensions between the communities will deepen and the repression will go forth.
The regime must stop the rhetoric. It must stop paying lip service to human rights while violating the basic rights of too many of its citizens. It is the responsibility of the international community and of the Kingdom of Bahrain's main partners - the United Kingdom, the United States, France - to ensure that Bahrain takes concrete actions to allow its citizens to enjoy their full rights – including freedom of assembly and expression – without consequence. A first step would be to release Nabeel and other human rights defenders and protestors immediately. Only when all Bahrainis are allowed to exercise the full spectrum of rights will the situation in Bahrain improve.
Katherine Gallagher is Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights