BHRC Report on Hearing Observation of Human Rights Defenders in Bahrain accused of ‘terror’ related activities

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A report of the hearing of Mr. Hasan Mashaima (Secretary General of Haq Movement of Civil Liberties and Democracy); Dr. Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace (Head and Spokesperson for HAQ); Mr. Mohammed Habib Al Muqdad (prominent religious figure closely allied to HAQ) and others (case no.1057/2009/7)

High Criminal Court Bahrain – 24 March 2009


The hearing observation was undertaken by Kirsty Brimelow on behalf of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales. This report was written by Kirsty Brimelow (Vice-chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee and Barrister at Doughty Street Chambers). It was edited by Priscilla Dudhia and Jacqueline Macalesher.

Responsibility for the content of this report, and the views expressed within, lies solely with the Bar Human Rights Committee.

About the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales

The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) is the international human rights arm of the Bar of England and Wales. It is an independent body concerned with protecting the rights of advocates, judges and human rights defenders around the world. It is concerned with defending the rule of law and internationally recognised legal standards relating to human rights and the right to a fair trial.

The remit of BHRC extends to all countries of the world, apart from its own jurisdiction of England & Wales. This reflects the Committee’s need to maintain its role as an independent but legally qualified observer, critic and advisor, with internationally accepted rule of law principles at the heart of its agenda.


During March 2009, BHRC undertook a mission to observe the hearing of three human rights defenders and thirty-two other co-defendants accused of “terror” related activities in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The case concerned violations of international human rights standards.

This report describes the background, the progress and the results of the hearing. It outlines key recommendations for the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Overview of the human rights situation in the Kingdom of Bahrain

Major political and human rights reforms adopted by King Shaikh Hamad bin `Isa al-Khalifa in 2001-2002 have slowed dramatically, and in some cases been reversed. Arrests of government critics have been a major blow to the reform process. Arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly have continued to repress human rights defenders and journalists, and internet sites known for carrying criticism of the government have been banned . Such restrictions are legitimised through statute.

One of the most significant pieces of legislation in Bahrain is the Penal Code of 1976, which is extremely broad in the range of acts that could be caught by the statute. Acts such as “encouraging hatred of the state”, “distributing falsehood and rumours”, “insulting the judiciary” and “broadcasting abroad false information or statements or rumours about the internal affairs of the country” are prohibited. Bahrain has previously prosecuted activists under the Penal Code for exercising their human rights and making political statements.

In July 2007 the King ratified amendments to Decree n o. 18 of 1973 on Public Meetings, Processions and Gatherings (the Bahrain Gathering Code), which mandates prior notification of “every meeting held in a public or private place participated [in] by individuals who do not have [a] personal invitation”. The Code imposes penalties, including imprisonment, for speech-related conduct, even where there is no threat or incitement to violence or hatred. Moreover, it outlaws demonstrations for election purposes , political rallies and generally limits the freedom of assembly to Bahraini citizens.

State authorities continue to use the press law (Law 47/2002) to restrict coverage of controversial matters, including official corruption. While in May 2008 the government announced a new draft press law that would remove criminal penalties for most journalistic infractions, they appeared to retain the option of criminal penalties for certain types of written or spoken comment, including those found to harm national unity. The draft has been awaiting approval by the National Assembly as of November 2008.

Anti-terrorism legislation has been utilised to further stifle the promotion of human rights. In August 2006, the King signed into law the Protecting Society from Terrorists Act. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism has expressed concern that this law contains an excessively broad definition of terrorism and terrorist acts, and could be used to penalise the peaceful exercise of human rights. There need not be an intention to kill or cause serious bodily harm in order for an individual to be found guilty under this statute. Article 1 prohibits any act that would “damage national unity” or “obstruct public authorities from performing their duties”. Article 6 of the Act prescribes the death penalty for acts that “disrupt[s] the provisions of the Bahraini Constitution, law[s], or prevents any of the state enterprises or public authorities from exercising their duty” or “harm[s] national unity”. Such broad terminology enables the government to place restrictions on the freedoms of association and assembly which may allow for the criminalisation of peaceful demonstrations. The Act also allows for extended periods of detention without charge or judicial review, heightening the risk of arbitrary detention and torture or inhumane treatment.

While the Kingdom of Bahrain, in its submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism in April 2008, stated “there are no cases of torture in the Kingdom”, reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch seem to suggest otherwise. A report by Amnesty International in 2007 revealed that in August 2007, a group of detainees, most of whom were being held at the Dry-Dock prison on the Island of al Muharraq, were beaten by riot police following announcement of their intention to go on a hunger-strike. After appearing before the High Criminal Court, they were reportedly taken outside the prison grounds, their hands tied behind their backs, and were forced to lie face-down in the heat of the sun for more than two hours, during which time they were allegedly beaten with sticks and kicked. The following September saw the release of the men, having received a pardon from the King. However, no investigation into their alleged ill-treatment is known to have been carried out. In early 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that judicial interrogators have tortured, and in one case sexually assaulted, opposition political activists detained after violent protests. Again, no investigation into their alleged ill-treatment is known to have been carried out. Such impunity has been institutionalised in law, with immunity having been granted to officials for acts of torture committed prior to February 2001.

Human rights defenders are also facing increased challenges in carrying out their human rights activities. The Government, under Law 21/1989, continues to exercise the right to reject the registration of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). According to Frontline Defenders, registration is often used to hinder the work of human rights defenders. The authorities unreasonably delay registration, which may take up to several years, or refuse it without providing any reasonable grounds. Members of unregistered organisations and committees are often harassed and their events disrupted on the grounds that the organisation is unregistered.

Human Rights defenders have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, fabricated judicial proceedings, threats, harassment and media smear campaigns . Despite provisions for basic rights in Bahraini law and the fact that it has ratified a number of international human rights treaties, the enjoyment of civil and political rights is in practice limited.

Read the full BHRC report here


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