Bahrain: pro-democracy and human rights advocacy in the European Parliament since 2011

The Bahraini Uprising broke out in February 2011. Half of the population of Bahrain participated in the pro-democracy protests. It was the result of a mixed population where all ranges of the Bahraini society unified to peacefully demand more democracy, economic and social development. The Bahraini government severely repressed the demonstrations, violating several human rights. Since then, the International community has expressed its concerns about the human rights situation in Bahrain and called on the government to implement reforms towards democracy.  The European Parliament, which has a monitoring competence, played a key role in advocating for human rights and democratic transition in Bahrain in the last eight years, through statements, resolutions or questions issued by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Advocacy for the end of the use of “excessive force” by the state of Bahrain

The Bahraini government responded to the 2011 events with massive repression, including dispersion of riots by the use of excessive force, arrests, home raids, arbitrary detention, and military trials, together with other human rights violations against anyone who raised the voice against the government. Following these events, the European Parliament has been making several efforts to address the human rights situation in Bahrain, notably for the state-sponsored violence. In the months following the Arab Spring, the European Parliament (EP) released a first resolution on 7 April 2011, which condemns the violent repression of peaceful demonstrators by security forces. Furthermore, the European Parliament has urged the Bahraini government and authorities to “refrain from the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators in respect of their freedom of expression and assembly.” This position was reiterated in a further resolution issued on 27 October 2011.

Moreover, the European Parliament pointed out the lack of concrete reaction from the EU at the time the events happened. The parliamentary question by MEPs Marietje Schaake (ALDE) and Edward McMillan-Scott (ALDE) entitled “The EU’s inappropriate reaction to the use of violence in Bahrain”, addressed on 12 April 2011, calls upon the High Representative and the Vice-President of the Commission to engage concrete measures in order to stop violence in Bahrain. In the 7 April 2011 resolution, the EP had proposed several actions to demonstrate that “the use of violence by a state against its own population must have direct repercussions on its bilateral relations with the European Union […] such as asset freezes, travel bans etc. [and asserts] that the people at large should never be affected by such a review of bilateral relations.”

Throughout the years, Bahrain continued to exert abusive practice against its population despite international pressures, such as firing non-lethal bullets at close range, birdshots and tear gas. Authorities have this legitimacy because Bahrain’s penal code widely criminalizes freedom of expression and assembly. In February 2014, the Bahraini government issued the Decree 24/2014, which allowed police commanders the right to use the force even in “extreme necessity.”

The EP kept raising awareness about the practice of police brutality in Bahrain and advocating for strengthening the pressure on Bahrain authorities to implement reforms.

For example, in the aftermath of the pro-democracy events of 2011, there have been numerous dismissals of experienced doctors for providing medical care to injured protestors. In March 2011, the security forces violently dispersed protesters from the Pearl Roundabout and then took control of the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC).  They tortured 60 doctors that treated injured civilians and prevented the medical staff from doing their jobs. This issue was stressed out by MEP Syed Kamall (ECR) on 15 November 2012 on the parliamentary question entitled “Human rights abuses in Bahrain.

The High Representative answered that she “continues to use all available diplomatic tools to express her views, notably calling all sides to refrain from inciting violence and to reject it unequivocally in all its forms.” The answer evokes the establishment of a programme, funded via the Instrument for Stability to address training of judges and prosecutors on certain human rights issues such as police brutality.

Advocacy for the halt of arms sells

The European Parliament has been strongly advocating the halt of arms shipment towards Bahrain. As of 26 May 2011, the EP called on the European Commission on this issue through the parliamentary question “Suspension of EU arms exports to Yemen and Bahrain” issued by MEP David Casa (PPE). He asked why the Commission had not imposed an embargo on arms towards Bahrain. Even though the High Representative answered that this decision remained in the hand of the member States, the Parliament kept asking for a halt in arm shipment throughout the years.

Furthermore, on 22 October 2013, MEP Marietje Schaake (ALDE) raised the similar question of tear gas supply in a parliamentary question, stating that “Security forces often use teargas indiscriminately, which has resulted in the deaths of some 39 people by suffocation or being hit on the head by tear gas canisters.” She asked the High Representative and the Vice-President how such shipment could be avoided.

Attempting a transition to democracy: the call for a national dialogue 

In the aftermath of the 2011 pro-democracy protest, the Government of Bahrain has begun to implement restrictions to freedom of expression and association causing the national dialogue’s failure and the oppression of the political opposition. The European Parliament promptly reacted. In a parliamentary question dated 12 April 2011 calling for further action to be carried out by the European Union. Since the beginning of the crisis, it played a key role encouraging a transition towards democracy and the establishment of a dialogue, comprehensive of every part of civil society, in addition with the implementation of a series of democratic reforms. The importance of such dialogue was stressed multiple times in the following years in different answers to MEPs questions and in the Parliamentary Resolution of 7 April 2011. Equally, the EP monitored through several MEPs questions whether the EU Institutions in charge were aware of the ongoing situation in Bahrain and were taking adequate actions. On the other hand, on 27 October 2011,  the EP welcomed positively the decision of the King to set up the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) with a Parliamentary Resolution.  Alongside with the implementation of BICI recommendation, in different answers to a MEP’s question, the EU pushed the Government of Bahrain to implement the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations and the recommendations of the Bassiouni report. Despite the positive efforts made by the Government of Bahrain establishing the BICI and opening a national dialogue, the situation was far from being solved.
The EP reiterated several times to implement reforms. Meanwhile, the national dialogue established in 2011 failed to produce a discussion with different parts of civil society, as it was interrupted and re-established several times. In a MEP question issued on 9 June 2013, the EP asked for clarifications regarding the fact that the resumption of the national dialogue was not producing any progress.

Oppression of Political Opposition 

As soon as the Government of Bahrain carried out a series of measures to restrict civil liberties and oppress political opposition, the EP reacted issuing parliamentary questions and resolutions. On 20 September 2013, the EP issued a question regarding the imprisonment of Khalil Almarzooq, political assistant to the Secretary-General of Bahrain’s Al‐Wefaq political society. He was arrested after a speech made during an opposition rally in Saar on 7 September 2013. Similarly, on 17 September the prominent oppositional leader Khalil al-Marzouq was arrested. The EP asked for clarifications in a question on 27 September 2013. Furthermore, the MEPs drew the EU attention with a series of Royal decrees passed in July which prohibit demonstrations, sit-ins and public gatherings in Manama. Similarly, in September the Ministry of Justice issued a decree imposing new restrictions on political assembly. In front of such violations, the EP emitted a Parliamentary Resolution on 12 September 2013, expressing its regrets on the decree and calling for an immediate restore of freedoms of expression and association, alongside with the respect of human rights.

During the following years, the Bahraini government continued this process of cracking down on the opposition. In 2015, four different political exponents have been arrested. The EP issued several parliamentary questions regarding the arrest of Ali Salman, Secretary General of al-Wefaq as well as the arrest of Sheik Hasan Isa, former al-Wefaq member of the Bahraini Parliament and the imprisonment of Fadhel Abbas, secretary-general of the Bahraini opposition political party the Unitary National Democratic Assemblage.  Moreover, on 9 July 2015, the EP issued a resolution putting more pressure on the government to release political prisoners, restore a national dialogue and finally implement recommendations. On the other hand, the resolution welcomed the release from prison of the opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif in June 2015. However, the Government of Bahrain arrested him again three weeks after his release. In consequence to that, the EP issued a question asking the HR/VP and the European External Action Service (EEAS) which measures they would take. In 2016, the EP released a recommendation where it expressed all its concerns on the repressions that the government has operated against political opposition and civil society. Nevertheless in 2017, the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit to dissolve the leading secular opposition party Waad, in a similar way as the government did in 2016 ordering the dissolution of al-Wafaq. Namely, the EP asked with a question to the HR/VP which was the action the EU had undertaken.

The need to reform courts and the Bahraini judiciary 

Since 2011, the EP has been highly critical of the Bahraini judicial system. The EP resolution of 27 October 2011 on Bahrain condemned the Bahraini government’s practice for trying civilians in military courts during the unrest of 2011, urging that it instead ensures a free and fair trial for all accused.  Also, it condemns special military courts for trying civilians, as it is a violation of international fair trial standards, and stresses that civilians must be tried in civilian courts and that every detained person deserves a fair trial.

In addition, on October 11 2011, the MEP Niki Travel (EFD) raised a question about the European Commission’s position on Bahrain’s special tribunal cases. At this moment, the Courts in Bahrain have sentenced 13 doctors and nurses who treated anti-government protestors to 15 years’ imprisonment for “crimes against the state.” On 29 November 2011, the answer pointed out that the HR/VP Catherine Ashton has repeatedly raised the EU’s concerns about these trials, especially regarding the composition of the National Safety Courts. The EU has taken positive note of the decision of the Bahraini authorities to nullify completely the trials against the medics, who will be tried again by normal civilian courts.

On 24 November 2017, the MEP Ana Gomes (S&D) asked which actions the HR/VP would undertake against Bahrain’s recurring violation of the right to a fair trial in a context of reappearance of military trials of civilians in Bahrain. In April 2017, the King of Bahrain ratified a constitutional amendment which is likely to be used to try before a military court any civilian charged under anti-terrorism laws, including peaceful activists prosecuted on fabricated charges.

EP advocacy against torture and capital punishment 

Since 2011, the European Parliament has been highly critical of the Bahraini authorities’ widespread use of torture against political activists. The European Parliament resolution of 9 July 2015 calls for the immediate ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture.

In the resolution called “Executions in Koweit and Bahrain” on 16 February 2017, the European Parliament echoed previous complaints about the Bahraini government’s use of torture, while also calling for it to allow a visit by the Special Rapporteur on Torture. They reiterated their condemnation of the use of the death penalty, and strongly supported the introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty as a step towards its abolition.

Although the last execution took place in 2010, Bahraini courts have continued to hand down death sentences every year. On 26 January 2018, the MEP Ruža Tomašić (ECR) asked the High Representative/Vice-President if the EU would urge Bahrain to stop sentencing people to death in the context where 14 people have been sentenced to death in 2017, all for charges related to political unrest.  This was emphasised by the EU in a statement by the spokesperson in January 2017 on executions carried out in Bahrain.

EP advocacy to release human rights defenders and activists 

The European Parliament called for the release or retrial of all human rights defenders. Every year since 2011, the European Parliament has been strongly criticising the arrests and sentences of political activists, teachers, journalists, and bloggers who spoke out against the Government of Bahrain.

The case of Nabeel Rajab has been repeatedly defended within the European Parliament. On 21 October 2014, David Martin (S&D) raised the recent arrest and detention of Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. One year later, on 9 July 2015, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the case of Nabeel Rajab. It called for the dropping of charges and immediate and unconditional release of all human rights defenders, political activists and other individuals detained and charged with alleged violations related to the rights of expression and peaceful assembly, including Nabeel Rajab, Sheikh Ali Salman and the so-called “Bahrain 13.” In 2018, the European Parliament adopted the resolution “Human rights situation in Bahrain, notably the case of Nabeel Rajab.” 

Once again, Parliament called for the immediate release of all those detained solely for their peaceful human rights and political activities, and of Nabeel Rajab who was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in relation to tweets he posted on alleged cases of torture in Bahrain’s Jau Prison and the air strikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. In addition, MEPs use social medias to support the case of Nabeel Rajab, such as the tweets ahead of Nabeel’s trial by MEPs Pier Antonio Panzeri, José Inácio Faria, Alessia Maria Mosca, Brando Benifei and Soraya Post in 2018. MEP Julie Ward raised concern over the harassment of Nabeel Rajab and the ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain at the EU Plenary Session in Strasbourg on 12 December 2017.

Moreover, MEPs concerted to write two letters in 2015. On 30 April 2015, 67 members of the European Parliament signed a letter issued by Ms Julie Ward MEP to the attention of Ms Federica Mogherini. They expressed concern over the continuing human right violations in Bahrain. Plus, on 19 November 2015, 80 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have sent a letter to the King of Bahrain Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa. The MEPs expressed their concerns on the ongoing human right situation in Bahrain, addressing abuses and limitations of freedoms.

Since 2011, numerous human rights defenders arrested for their actions have been defended and supported by the European Parliament advocacy. On 3 April 2012, the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has been raised by MEP Michał Tomasz Kamiński (ECR), who is one of 14 Bahraini activists arrested in March and April 2011 following their involvement in anti-government protests. He has been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment during his time in prison. On 15 May 2012, the MEP Charles Tannock (ECR) pointed out the case of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja who has been sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Bahrain. In 2011, he and his co-defendants were charged with attempting to depose the monarchy by force and liaising with terrorists. Subsequent to the trial, an international human rights organisation has raised questions regarding the quality and credibility of the evidence used to convict him. Plus, allegations have been made that Mr Al-Khawaja has been subjected to beatings and torture while in custody. More recently, on 06 January 2019, there was a parliamentary question issued by Brandon Benifei (S&D) concerning the arbitrary detention of Habib Ali Mubarak in Bahrain.

Advocacy to respect children’s rights

The European Parliament raised issues pertaining to violations of children’s rights in Bahrain. Resolutions called on the Government of Bahrain to conduct an impartial investigation into reports of police arresting, detaining, and torturing minors associated with their alleged participation in demonstrations, and called on Bahrain to respect the rights of children. Plus, on 16 April 2014, MEPs Marc Tarabella (S&D) and Jean Louis Cottigny (S&D) highlighted through a parliamentary question the case of two 15-year-old boys, Jehad Sadeq Aziz Salman and Ebrahim Ahmed Radi al Moqdad who were arrested during an anti-government demonstration in Manama on 23 July 2012. Both of them claimed to have been forced to sign confessions, with no legal assistance. They were tried by an adult court and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in April 2013. Bahrain is in breach of the commitments made on 13 August 1992 when it signed its accession to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) welcomes the pro-democracy and human rights advocacy in the European Parliament. For eight years, the European parliament has been a key actor in raising awareness about human rights violations in Bahrain. Once again, ECDHR calls on Bahrain to take into account the European Parliament position. 



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