Bahrain: high time for targeted sanctions, say MEPs in a strong Urgency Resolution on Bahrain

15 June 2018Yesterday, the European Parliament adopted a much-awaited resolution condemning Bahrain’s crackdown on human rights and fundamental freedoms ahead of the upcoming elections, asking for the release of all detained human rights activists and calling for strong follow-up EU action, including the introduction of sanctions – a first since 2013.

This June Plenary Session saw the European Parliament sending a clear signal to Bahraini authorities that no one can no longer be fooled by orchestrated PR campaigns nor ignore the extent of human rights violations in the country, as MEPs passed a much-awaited Resolution of 14 June 2018 on the human rights situation in Bahrain, notably the case of Nabeel Rajab – especially in light of Bahrain’s deteriorating human rights situation since the Parliament’s last resolutions. This resolution follows the sentencing of Bahraini human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, to a total of 7-year imprisonment on freedom of expression charges and a relentless crackdown on free expression and assembly, religious freedom, political rights and human rights defenders.

In recent years, Bahraini authorities have waged a campaign to silence any dissenting voices. While parliamentary elections are scheduled for fall 2018, “the democratic space in the country has been essentially […] shut down” according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. With the dissolution of the two main opposition groups, Al-Wefaq in June 2016 and Wa’ad in May 2017, the suspension of the country’s last independent newspaper in June 2017 and the recent adoption of a law barring resigned MPs and members of those dissolved groups from running for elections, Bahrain’s current political environment is not conducive to free and fair elections.

Since 2016, authorities have stepped up their crackdown on peaceful dissidents and human rights activists, inside and outside of Bahrain. On 5 June 2018, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court of Appeal upheld the five year sentence against Bahrain’s leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab in relation to tweets about the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen and allegations of torture in Bahrain’s Jaw prison. This shameful verdict followed an unfair trial marred by allegations of mistreatments and procedural flaws. In July 2017, Rajab was sentenced to two-year imprisonment for comments he made in television interviews. [more info on his case here]

Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who’s serving life sentence for his participation to peaceful 2011 protests, or UK-based activist Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, whose relatives have been sentenced in reprisal for his human rights work, are only a few cases amongst Bahrain’s many prisoners of conscience. In addition, systematic discrimination against the Shia majority population have persisted, while authorities have increasingly arbitrary citizenship revocations and death penalty. The use of torture and ill-treatment widespread, and authorities resumed military trials to prosecute civilians.

Facing Bahrain’s pattern of systematic human rights violations, and the government’s consistent refusal to openly cooperate with international human rights bodies, including the European Parliament’s Human Rights Subcommittee (DROI), one could easily understand why such a strong resolution was . The text, which was submitted by the Greens/EFA, S&D, EFDD, GUE/NGL and ALDE groups, notably condemns the ongoing repression of prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who continues to suffer ill-treatment and denial of adequate medical care, “causing his health to seriously deteriorate over time”, and could face additional prison time. Stressing the symbolic nature of Rajab’s case, it further calls on Bahraini authorities to immediately release him and “all those detained solely for their peaceful human rights and political activities”, and to ensure that human rights defenders can freely carry out their work, hence to lift travel bans and stop harassment and intimidation practices. It also urges the government to review all death sentences and to impose an official moratorium on all executions, to stop prosecuting civilians in military trials and to overturn arbitrary citizenship revocations. Noting the lack of independence of national human rights institutions, it commands authorities to refrain from all torture, cruel and degrading treatment of detainees and to duly investigate abuses. Lastly, the resolution denounces Bahrain’s efforts to silence dissenting voice, which runs counter “the principles of democratic pluralism and free and fair elections”, warning the authorities

Lastly, MEPs regretted Bahrain’s lack of cooperation with human rights bodies, including the UN Special Rapporteurs and DROI.

But besides comprehensively addressing and condemning Bahrain’s abysmal human rights record, the Resolution also calls for strong follow-up action from the High Representative / Vice-President (HR/VP) Federica Mogherini, the European Council and the Member States, including to raise the case of Bahrain under Item 4 at the upcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Most significantly, it urges the EU to “consider the introduction of targeted measures against those responsible for grave human rights violations”, a first . In another well-suited move, it also commends Member States to “halt all transfers of weapons, surveillance and intelligence equipment and material that can be used by Bahrain in its ongoing crackdown on human rights” and requests tighter EU control on the matter.

Garnering strong support during the debates, the resolution was ultimately adopted by a large majority of 479 MEPs in favour, 97 against and 58 who abstained. But the road wasn’t so easy. In the past months, right-wing groups repeatedly opposed to resolution proposals on Bahrain during intergroup debates preceding the Plenary Sessions. The day before the debate, right-wing EPP and ECR groups decided to submit a last-minute competing joint motion for resolution, in a clear attempt to . A far more lenient assessment of Bahrain’s human rights situation, the text whitewashed the government’s abuses record as it welcomed its “commitments to improve the rights” of Bahraini citizens and stressed the importance of “Bahrain’s sovereignty” and of “non-interference” in the country’s affairs – despite raising some individual cases, including that of Nabeel Rajab. A move which MEP Fabio Castaldo (EFDD) firmly condemned during the debates, while Marietje Schaake (ALDE) denounced EPP and ECR’s move to propose an alternative resolution despite having agreed on an initial joint motion as a “clear breach of trust”.

Although the EPP-ECR motion was rejected during the voting session, the debates regrettably saw a few MEPs parroting Bahrain’s official rhetorical pirouettes. MEP David Campbell Bannerman (ECR), who praised Bahrain’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU)’s efforts to “vigorously investigate mistreatment” allegations – despite proven lack of impartiality, denounced the original joint motion as what he considered “yet another motion attacking Bahrain” that was “probably influenced by Iran”. EPP parliamentarian Tomáš Zdechovský called for an open and “constructive dialogue” with Bahraini authorities. But, as stressed by MEP Neena Gill (S&D), Bahraini authorities, who have tried “their best to paint a picture of the country in which there’s a respect for fundamental values and human right” have now made clear their total disregard for human rights and unwillingness to openly address the issue, and “no amount of PR efforts can gloss over the human rights violations and repression which continue to increase”.

Still, a vast majority of MEPs voiced strong condemnations and notably called for the unconditional release of Nabeel Rajab and all other prisoners of conscience, including Barbara Lochbihler (Greens/EFA), Soraya Post (S&D), Ignazio Corrao (EFDD) José Inácio Faria (EPP), Pavel Svoboda (EPP) and DROI Vice-Chair Christian Dan Preda (EPP). MEPs Post and Julie Ward (S&D) also called for the release of Gulf Centre for Human Rights’s funder Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. MEP Ward, who declared “horrified by the state of affairs in Bahrain, particularly in light of the involvement of several European governments”, also denounced the judicial harassment of UK-based human rights activist Sayed Alwadaei’s relatives. MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat (GUE/NGL) pointed widespread discrimination against the Shia majority population, and, conveying the concerns of Adam Rajab, Nabeel’s son, about his father’s health, asked for European ambassadors to visit Nabeel Rajab and called the Commission to advance the initiative with Member States. Eventually, a number of parliamentarians denounced ongoing arms and surveillance technologies transfers between European companies and Bahrain, including MEPs Maria, Vergiat, Lochbiller, Castaldo and Gill, and urged them, along with the EU’s External Action Service and the Commission, to consider imposing individual sanctions. Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete closed the debate by deploring the closure of the democratic space ahead of the parliamentary elections and noting that the adoption of the new electoral law banning opposition members from running for elections “is not a step for the right direction”.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights strongly welcomes MEPs’ efforts to comprehensively assess and to firmly condemn widespread human rights abuses in Bahrain through this resolution – a clear sign that the European Parliament is no longer fooled by authorities’ rhetorical pirouettes and empty promises aimed at covering up abuses. We commend the MEPs’ strong recommendations, both towards Bahraini authorities and towards the HR/VP, the European Council and the Member States. It is now high time for the EU and the Member States to move beyond mere condemnations and to ensure the swift follow-up of the Parliament’s recommendations.

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