The authorities escalated their efforts to stifle freedom of expression, targeting in particular online forums, the last remaining space where Bahrainis could criticize the government. Use of unfair mass trials continued both for people facing terrorism-related charges and protesters. Denaturalization of citizens (stripping them of their nationality) continued, though hundreds of people previously made stateless had their Bahraini nationality restored. Migrant workers’ rights remained limited, leaving them open to exploitation and abuse.
Women were still not treated equally with men in law or in practice. Executions resumed after a lull since January 2017. Prison conditions remained poor and in many cases amounted to degrading and inhuman treatment.
The new parliament (National Assembly) had its first year in office following elections in November 2018 for the lower house that excluded all opposition candidates.
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 and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the armed conflict in Yemen. Bahrain remained a member of the coalition imposing economic and political sanctions on Qatar, along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The authorities drastically stepped up threats against Bahrainis who criticized the system of government or state policy on social media, which after the 2017 closure of the independent newspaper al-Wasat had been the only venue left for dissident political speech. On 20 May, King Hamad announced that he had directed security agencies to stop the “misuse of social media” and the Prime Minister directed the Ministry of Interior to “deal harshly” with online sites and social media that he described as “poison and filthy pus” spread by “enemies inside and outside” the country seeking to “spread dissension”. The same day, the Ministry of Interior stated it was taking legal action against people with social media accounts in several European countries for “defacing Bahrain’s reputation”. As an example of those targeted, the statement named Sayed Yusuf al-Muhafdha, a Bahraini refugee in Germany and past vicepresident of the now outlawed Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
In the following weeks the Ministry of Interior, particularly its Cyber Crime Directorate, repeatedly threatened to prosecute anyone who followed, circulated or expressed approval of social media accounts spreading “fitna” (“sedition” or “social discord”). Bahrainis began to receive text messages with similar warnings. On 4 June, Twitter criticized Bahrain’s rhetoric as a potential threat to free expression and journalism.
On 29 October, Facebook and WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in a US federal court against Israeli spyware company NSO. The lawsuit alleged that, working on behalf of Bahrain, the UAE and other countries, NSO had targeted 1,400 private devices whose users “included attorneys, journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, [and] diplomats” in multiple countries, including individuals in Bahrain and the UAE.
On 14 July, Qatar’s state-backed Al Jazeera television broadcast an interview with former Bahrain Defence Force officer Yaser Adhbi al-Jalahima in which he accused the Bahraini government of fabricating evidence that protesters had been armed during the uprising in 2011. Bahrain responded by announcing that al-Jalahima had been sentenced to death in his absence on 30 April on charges of spying for Qatar.
Throughout the year, the authorities continued to summon, interrogate and prosecute people for statements they had made online and offline.
On 16 January, former opposition MP Ali Rashed al-Asheeri was convicted and sentenced to a suspended prison term for tweeting that Bahrainis should not participate in the November 2018 parliamentary elections.
On 13 March, Ebrahim Sharif, a leader of the non-sectarian political group Wa’d, was convicted of insulting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir via a tweet and sentenced to a suspended six-month prison sentence.
On 15 May, lawyer Abdulla AbdulRahman Hashim was summoned for interrogation and briefly detained over comments he made on Twitter that were interpreted as critical of authorities.
Use of mass trials continued both for people facing terrorism-related charges and protesters and were characterized by major fair trial concerns.
On 28 January, an appeal court upheld the convictions and sentences of around 200 citizens who had undergone mass trials on terrorism-related charges in two cases known as the “Jaw prison break” and “Dhu al-Fiqar cell” cases.
On 27 February, after a mass trial, 167 defendants were convicted on charges related to their participation in a longterm peaceful sit-in around the home in al-Duraz of the Shi’a cleric Isa Qasim to protest against his denaturalization. On 16 April, after another mass trial, 138 people were convicted and denaturalized on charges relating to their alleged involvement in a “Bahraini Hizbullah” cell.3 All convictions in both trials were upheld on appeal, though many of the sentences were reduced. Final sentences ranged from three years’ imprisonment to the death penalty.
REVOCATION OF NATIONALITY AND STATELESSNESS
Courts continued to issue and uphold decisions to denaturalize citizens, but authorities reversed the denaturalization of 643 individuals, reducing the total number made stateless to around 350.
Migrant workers continued to be exploited. Reforms announced in previous years failed to protect lowincome migrant workers from abuses. Thousands of complaints relating to unpaid wages were brought to the labour courts.
Bahrain’s flexi-visa scheme, introduced in 2017 to help irregular migrant workers regularize their status, was expanded temporarily to include workers who had not received their wages. The programme allows migrant workers to self-sponsor their stay in Bahrain and work for different employers in exchange for considerable fees. The fees, which were already exorbitant for low-income workers, were increased in 2019 to encourage the recruitment of Bahraini nationals. It remained to be seen if this system would better protect migrant workers.
A wage-protection system announced in 2018 was not launched as promised due to delays in implementation. The system would require employers to transfer all salaries to their employees via bank accounts, allowing the government to monitor cases of unpaid wages. Large companies were to be the first to join the system, followed by medium to small businesses and eventually the employers of domestic workers.
Bahrain continues to deny women legal equality, maintaining reservations to core articles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, including Article 2, which commits states to “eliminating discrimination against women”. Article 4 of Bahrain’s Nationality Law denies equal transmission of nationality, so that a Bahraini woman married to a foreign national cannot pass her nationality to her children. Article 31 of the Domestic-Sector Labour Law of 2012 authorizes the Minister of Labour “to define positions in which women’s employment is prohibited”. Ministry of Labour Decision No. 32 of 2013, one of the law’s implementing regulations, prevents women from working “in positions which expose them to major or continuous physical effort”, as well as a number of professions. Under Article 353 of the Penal Code, “Anyone who commits” rape or sexual assault “shall not be sentenced to any punishment” and will be absolved of any prior conviction “if he contracts a proper marriage between himself and the wronged woman”.
Bahraini courts continued to hand down new death sentences and to uphold existing ones. On 27 July Bahrain carried out several executions, for the first time since January 2017. Authorities refused to give the bodies of the Bahraini men killed to their families for funeral arrangements and prevented most family members from being present at their burial.
Prison conditions remained poor, with overcrowding, inadequate supply of beds and hygienic items, punitive use of solitary confinement, poor sanitation, cases of food poisoning, skin infections, and medical neglect frequently reported, especially at Jaw, Bahrain’s main prison.4 In many cases, conditions and practices amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and or punishment. For most of the year prison authorities failed to issue inmate Ahmed Merza Ismaeel medication for his sicklecell anaemia, a disease that causes excruciating pain if left untreated, a violation of the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and his right to health.