Unfair trials of protesters, online critics of the government and relatives of these individuals continued, as did other suppression of freedom of expression. Group trials of excessive numbers of defendants, in some cases amounting to mass trials, as well as other unfair trials, also continued. Detainees were ill-treated and, in some cases, tortured. The Ministry of Interior’s Ombudsman, the government’s National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR) and the Office of Public Prosecution’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU) remained ineffective in safeguarding human rights and punishing violations. Women faced discrimination under Bahraini law. Prison conditions were poor. Dire living conditions for migrant workers left them particularly vulnerable to infection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bahraini authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic included significant restrictions on movement and social life. There were reportedly very high levels of testing, but this lacked basic transparency and did not include adequate protections for migrant workers. The authorities rolled out an invasive contact tracing app, putting the privacy of millions at risk by tracking users’ locations in real time.1
Bahrain continued to deny access to independent human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN human rights bodies. Bahrain remained a member of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia in the armed conflict in Yemen.
Bahrain has no independent media. All locally based newspapers and broadcasters support the government and are owned and/or managed by people close to the government.
Bahrain used the pretext of COVID-19 to further repress freedom of expression. In March, the Office of Public Prosecution threatened to act against anyone publishing or circulating “false news” or “biased rumours” on the grounds that “the current circumstances” called for “support for the agencies and institutions of the state”. A few days later, the Ministry of Interior announced that its Cyber Crime Directorate had assigned employees to “monitor and track offending [social media] accounts”. This led to scores of new investigations and prosecutions under Article 168 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes publication of “false news”.
Individuals who spoke out about human rights violations, and their relatives, faced reprisals. The authorities brought more than 20 cases against Kameel Juma Hasan, the 17-year-old son of former prisoner Najah Ahmed Yusuf, after they both refused to be informants for state security, and after Najah Ahmed Yusuf had told international human rights groups and media that she had been sexually assaulted during interrogation in 2017.2
In June, Nabeel Rajab, head of the outlawed Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was released from prison on probation, after serving four years for posting on Twitter criticizing the government’s human rights record.
Twelve of the country’s most prominent Shi’a civic, religious and political leaders remained in prison. Eleven had been in prison since 2011 for their participation in mass opposition demonstrations that year. Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest legal political bloc in Bahrain between 2006 and 2011, continued serving a life sentence imposed in 2018 based on falsified charges of “spying” for Qatar.
The prominent Shi’a cleric Sheikh Isa Qasim remained in forced exile in Iran, where he went in 2018 after the Bahraini authorities had revoked his citizenship.
Prosecutors failed to effectively address complaints of torture brought before them, despite widespread reports of it at specific sites, with detainees often identifying the agency and sometimes the name and rank of the alleged torturers. In Bahrain there is no known record of a successful prosecution for torture to force a confession in the past four years.
On 13 July, the Court of Cassation, Bahrain’s highest judicial authority, upheld for the second time the death sentences handed down in 2014 on Mohamed Ramadhan Isa and Husain Ali Moosa. In a rare investigation into a torture complaint, the prosecution’s Special Investigation Unit had found “suspicion of the crime of torture” behind Husain Ali Moosa’s “confessions.” However, the appellate court’s verdict once again relied on Husain Ali Moosa’s “confession” as evidence, and stated incorrectly that Mohamed Ramadhan Isa had also signed a confession.
Also in July, the Ministry of Interior’s Ombudsman asserted that multiple cases referred to it relating to detainees who had been held incommunicado were beyond its remit. This was despite its clear statutory mandate to investigate all violations of law by Ministry of Interior personnel.3
In September, credible reports emerged that guards in Jaw prison had beaten Ali AbdulHusain al-Wazeer, breaking many of his bones. However the Ombudsman, the SIU and the NIHR all failed to effectively address the case despite being informed of it.
Prison conditions, especially in the central prison at Jaw in south-eastern Bahrain, were poor, with lack of sanitation and frequent ill-treatment, including arbitrary confiscation of personal items, reprisals for speaking out, and denial of adequate medical care.
In April, the administration of Jaw prison put the jailed journalist Mahmood AbdulRedha al-Jazeeri in several days of solitary confinement after he had sent out a recorded message criticizing as a whitewash a televised COVID-19 safety inspection of the prison by the NIHR. The NIHR failed to investigate or condemn this punishment.
In January, following an outbreak of scabies lasting for several months at Jaw prison, the NIHR – instead of urging better conditions for prisoners – reiterated the call by prison authorities for prisoners with “allergies” to comply with official “health instructions”. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and infections among prison staff, prisoners at Jaw were not given masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, or regular testing for the virus.
Ahmed Merza Ismaeel, a prisoner with sickle cell anaemia – which can cause extreme pain when left untreated – continued to receive only sporadic medication from the prison administration.
In August, just after the Shi’a holy day of Ashura, guards at Dry Dock Juvenile Reform and Rehabilitation Centre near al-Hidd confiscated personal religious items from the cells of some of the children, including from 17-year-old Kameel Juma Hasan. In September, his family complained to the NIHR that he was suffering from dental pain, but no treatment was given. Another child held in the same wing reported that he received no treatment for pain and bleeding in his ear canal.
There were no statements or reported prison visits by the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission, a monitoring body established following the 2011 political unrest.
Women continued to face discrimination under Bahraini law. Article 4 of the Nationality Law prevents Bahraini women from passing on their nationality to their children, and Article 353 of the Penal Code provides impunity for rape if the rapist marries his victim.
In a positive step, in August the Ministry of Labour and Social Development’s Decision No. 51 annulled the regulation that had limited professions available to women. However, the Minister retained the authority to impose such restrictions under Article 31 of the Domestic Privsate Sector Labour Law of 2012.
Bahrain maintained its reservation to the core principle of Article 2 of CEDAW, maintaining that it would not be bound by any provisions of the treaty that do not comply with “Islamic Shari’a”.
The sponsorship (kafala) system for employing migrant workers in Bahrain put migrant workers in an even more vulnerable position and at risk of contracting COVID-19 during the pandemic.4 This was in addition to unsanitary living conditions in overcrowded accommodation, scarce legal protection and limited access to preventive health care and treatment.
The Court of Cassation continued to uphold the outcomes of flawed mass trials. In June, it rejected 48 of 49 appeals from a mass trial of 169 individuals charged with joining a terrorist organization. A group trial of 39 Shi’a defendants, including 14 children, concluded on 13 September with prison sentences for all defendants, some of whom were prevented from attending court for the verdict. On 3 November another mass trial of 52 alleged members of a “terrorist cell” concluded with 51 convictions.
Courts continued to hand down death sentences, in some cases following grossly unfair trials.
The Court of Cassation confirmed the death sentences against Zuhair Ebrahim Abdulla and Husain Abdulla Khalil on 15 June, and against Mohamed Ramadhan Isa and Husain Ali Moosa on 13 July. No executions were reported.