SALAM DHR side event at the UNHRC: Challenges for Democracy – Human Rights in the Gulf States

On the 8th of June 2017, SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights held a side event at the 35th Session of the UNHRC in cooperation with RADDHO under the title of Challenges for Democracy: Human Rights in the Gulf States. Fadi Al-Qadi (RightsCable.com), René Naba (Madaniya), Sheikh Maytham Al Salman (Bahrain Centre for Human Rights), and J. Choi (SALAM DHR) discussed the deteriorating situation against human rights defenders and political activists in the Gulf in general, and Bahrain, in particular.

Following is an excerpt from the speech of the senior researcher at SALAM, J. Choi, on the ongoing repression against human rights defenders and the opposition in Bahrain:

It’s a great honour to have an opportunity to speak today on behalf of Bahraini colleagues who are going through the hardest time of their human rights work and democratisation movement.

Today I want to share my experience and observance during my visits to Bahrain in the past three years. I hope my testimony can help you picture the deteriorating situation in Bahrain.

My first visit to Bahrain was made in May 2014. On the way from the airport to the central Manama, you see the well-maintained highways and skyscrapers. But just one block away from the centre, you will see totally different scene. That is where everything happens.

On the same day of my arrival, there was a massive Friday protest in local villages as a teenage boy had been killed by security forces one day before. I found the Internet was shut down by the government, who wanted to intervene the communication of people to disturb the organised protests. I had pain in my eyes in the following days. At first, I naively thought it was because of the strong air conditioner, but learned later it was due to the tear gas covered all over the city.

During my stay, I luckily had a chance to attend a small press conference of the prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who had been just released from detention a few days before. I said ‘luckily,’ because that was the first and last time I could see him in person, since he was repeatedly arrested and detained later on. Most lately, Nabeel Rajab was arrested again in June 2016, and since then, trials on his ‘tweets’ have been postponed numerous times, only extending his pre-trial detention. Al-Wasat, the only independent newspaper in Bahrain I visited that time, is now under indefinite suspension since a few days ago, due to its coverage on the riot in “sister Arab country” Morocco.

My second trip was in October 2015. I visited a village called Sanabis, where you cannot find any single household without having no family members in prison. I also had a chance to visit opposition parties. It seems it was also my last visit to Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party in Bahrain, since it has been dissolved by the government in July 2016 over charges of inciting terrorism, while its secretary general Sheikh Ali Salman is currently serving four years in jail.

I also attended a weekly public seminar held by Wa’ad, the largest liberal and secular political party in Bahrain, where 50-60 Bahraini participants and audiences discussed the future of democracy in the country. Not surprisingly, Wa’ad has been recently shut down as well over the same charge of supporting terrorism.

My latest visit to Bahrain was made in December 2016. The situation was worse than ever. In June that year, the Bahraini government had stripped of citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the prominent cleric and spiritual leader of the aforementioned Al-Wefaq, accused of provoking sectarian violence. Bahraini citizens immediately started a peaceful sit-in in the village of the Sheikh, and the area, Duraz, had become under siege. All the entrances to the village were tightly controlled, and people were forced to pass checkpoints only to go to works, shops or even schools. The security measures over Duraz are still ongoing until now, and two weeks ago, security forces launched a crackdown; five were killed and hundreds were injured.

One of activists I met that time, Ebtisam Saegh, was recently victimised by political reprisal of the Bahraini authority for her human rights works. She was beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted, and threatened by the authorities that they would harm her families.

To be honest with you, I needed some courage to share my experience here in Geneva, because I know what my public appearance would result in. As an academic researcher, who is about to start her career, it wouldn’t be so appealing to be blacklisted, and banned from entering the country, which she’s specialised in, just as the Bahraini government has done with a number of non-Bahraini academics, journalists, bloggers, not to mention activists. Nonetheless, the risk I would take would never be comparable to what Bahraini people have encountered and I know what I witnessed during my visits was just a small part of what they are going through on a daily basis. Numerous activists, politicians, journalists, and clerics have been targeted by the authorities in a way or another. They have been interrogated, arrested and tortured merely for their legitimate exercise of rights to freedom of expression. Many of them could not join us today because of travel bans and the threat that would come after their attendance at the UN Human Rights Council.

Thereby today, I decided to speak out on behalf of Bahrainis to encourage you to play a meaningful and practical role in putting pressure on the government of Bahrain to immediately stop the brutal oppression on its own people. Raise your voice from where you are positioned and continue to support, encourage and make pressure to ensure Bahrain implements legal and political changes in a proper manner.

Thanks for your attention.

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