At a human rights event in Washington, D.C. last month, the head of IFEX member Bahrain Center for Human Rights Nabeel Rajab and two other human rights defenders discussed how Shia citizens of Bahrain are continually shut out - of government jobs, the best education opportunities, the media, places to worship.
When the activists returned home, they were branded "traitors to Bahrain" and "stooges to the United States" in the media - by members of their very own government.
Twenty-four IFEX members and partners are calling for solidarity with the three human rights defenders and government assurances that they are free to carry out their work without intimidation or reprisal.
Rajab, along with Abduljalil Alsingace, the head of the Human Rights Unit of the HAQ Movement of civil liberties and democracy, and Maryam Alkhawaja, a youth activist and member of BCHR, were invited to brief U.S. Congress members on how political reforms are affecting religious freedom in Bahrain.
Since their participation in the 15 October event, they have been exposed to a defamation campaign through state-controlled media and religious venues. Members of Parliament, columnists and editors of local Arabic newspapers, as well as statements and sermons through mosques and religious centres, said their human rights activities were a call for foreigners to intrude in local affairs, and that they should be severely punished. Some have even called for the defenders to be jailed or tried for sedition.
The IFEX members said they were "alarmed" at the language, level of provocation and intimidation in the articles, and said the government was also to blame. "Such a campaign has been encouraged by the silence of the authorities and judicial establishment, which should be expected to respond... as they would if a similar campaign was made against officials, members of the government or the ruling family," said the groups.
Bahrain's Interior Minister, Shaikh Rashid Bin Abdalla al-Khalifa, has since demanded that Article 34 of Bahrain's penal code be enforced, reports ARTICLE 19. The article says that citizens who attend meetings or conferences abroad or meet with representatives of foreign bodies to talk about Bahrain's internal affairs will face no less than three months in jail and a fine.
"The minister's statement is an attempt to silence human rights defenders and severely impedes freedom of expression in Bahrain. ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about articles in the Bahraini Penal Code which deprive Bahrainis of the right to freedom of expression," said ARTICLE 19.
The case of the three rights defenders is not isolated. According to reports by human rights groups submitted to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in April, "threats, ill treatment, torture, and all forms of intimidation and harassment have been directed towards Bahraini human rights defenders in recent years."
ARTICLE 19 mentions Mohammed Abdul Nabi al-Maskati, founder of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), a youth group designed to encourage fellow young people to learn about and promote human rights in accordance with international standards. He faces six months in jail or a steep fine for "running an unlicensed association" - even though he tried registering the group as an NGO in June 2005. He is due in court in January.
Front Line, an international foundation that protects human rights defenders, has organised a letter-writing campaign to take action on behalf of the Bahraini activists. Copy the letter here and send it to the addresses provided: http://www.frontlinedefenders.
Also visit these links:
- IFEX joint action: http://tinyurl.com/6edpxp
- BCHR: http://www.bahrainrights.org/
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/5f2z65
- Front Line: http://www.frontlinedefenders.
-Human Rights watch: http://www.hrw.org/english/
(12 November 2008)