30 November 2011

International mission calls for freedom of human rights defenders

Several members of the mission team with rights activists in Bahrain
Several members of the mission team with rights activists in Bahrain
Adam Shapiro, Front Line Defenders

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All human rights defenders and activists should be freed in Bahrain, said an international mission supported by IFEX, which visited the country this past week to investigate the current state of freedom of expression. The call comes in the wake of a much-anticipated report from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) presented on 23 November, as well as a human rights report issued by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and other local groups.

The mission called on the King "to implement the Commission's recommendations to hold accountable all those responsible for past violations, and to take action immediately to prevent further abuses such as torture of detainees." The mission team was composed of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Front Line Defenders, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Index on Censorship, International Media Support and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International.

A goal of the mission was to provide solidarity and moral support to those who have been persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, as well as their families. Two members attended the 28 November trial of 20 medics and doctors, who are being persecuted for helping the wounded and dying during pro-democracy demonstrations that peaked in February and March. The mission team also met with the authorities twice to raise concerns, and attended the BICI report launch.

The BICI report was touted by the regime as a transparent initiative designed to ensure accountability for the deaths and torture of protesters earlier this year.

In reality, however, the government is "only interested in plastering over the cracks in its international reputation," and those responsible for murdering civilians seem to be getting away with it, blasts a comprehensive report released on 22 November by BCHR, the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and the Bahrain Human Rights Society. The groups make a number of their own recommendations to the government, which they say "are crucial to start a process of reconciliation and to stop the ongoing violence, including loss of civilian lives, taking place."

No official has been held responsible for the deaths of more than 50 protesters, including the prison deaths of a blogger and a journalist, nor the torture of hundreds that took place during the crackdown, the report says. Meanwhile, local and foreign media remains under lock and key and numerous individuals who advocated for reforms are still in jail, with some human rights activists serving life sentences. Only two officers have been charged for the deaths of protesters, and none have been convicted. No members of the royal family, who many victims say directly tortured them, are facing trial, the joint report notes.

In its report, the Commission says it "considers that the [National Security Apparatus] NSA failed to conduct an effective investigation" into the death of Karim Fakhrawy of "Al Wasat", one of the journalists who died in custody. Zakariya Al Asheri, founder of Al Dair online news website, also died in custody in April but five people have been prosecuted for his death.

The BICI report says, '"The Commission is of the view that the lack of accountability of officials within the security system in Bahrain has led to a culture of impunity, whereby security officials have few incentives to avoid mistreatment of prisoners or to take action to prevent mistreatment by other officials."

Human Rights Watch concludes that the "commission's findings confirm what Human Rights Watch and others have documented since Bahraini authorities opened their punitive campaign of retribution against pro-democracy protesters."

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