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Justice Denied in Bahrain: Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, writes to Hillary Clinton to express grave concern over the human rights situation in the country

Wednesday 15 August 2012 - 5:38pm

Hon. Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20520

14 August 2012

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I write on behalf of the over 100 PEN centres of PEN International, an organization that promotes literature and defends free expression, to express PEN’s continued concern about the state of freedom of expression and human rights in Bahrain.

Many of those concerns are outlined in PEN International’s November 2011 submission on Bahrain for the Universal Periodic Review process at the United Nations, a copy of which is attached to this letter. Between 20-30 November, 2011, as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, I took part in a fact-finding mission to Bahrain with a delegation of representatives from six international human rights groups affiliated with the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). Our January 2012 post-mission report, also attached, concluded that despite the government of Bahrain’s much-publicized commitments to reform, a culture of fear and impunity for human rights abuses prevailed on the ground in Bahrain.

The situation has deteriorated dramatically in the ensuing eight months, which is why I am writing to you with great urgency now.

Almost 18 months after the uprisings of 2011, Bahrain still suffers from significant human rights violations, and important structural impediments to freedom of expression have not been removed. Many of these violations and impediments were documented in the report that the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released on 23 November 2011. I attended the release of that report, and met the next day with Bahrain’s Minister of Human Rights, who promised that all of the recommendations of the BICI would be implemented.

Among many recommendations, the BICI suggested that Bahrain form a National Commission to make practical recommendations for reform by February 2012. When that National Commission released its report in March 2012, government officials claimed that many of the BICI recommendations had already been fulfilled. However, few effective changes have been made, and serious rights violations continue. In particular:

• Prominent human rights activists remain jailed. Amongst them is Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace, who remains in jail while on trial (a 14 August hearing was postponed until September 4). Human rights defender, academic, blogger Abdulhadi al-Khawaja endured a long hunger strike and also remains in jail while on trial. Al-Khawaja’s daughter, Zainab al-Khawaja, was arrested on 3 August for a sit-in protest and is currently detained.
• Bahraini citizens continue to be imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was arrested last month and sentenced to three-months in prison for posting a Tweet addressed to the Prime Minister, with an appeal verdict scheduled for August 16. Jailing citizens for online comments has clear and disturbing implications for free expression in one of the most wired countries in the Middle East.
• No high-level members of the government or the royal family have been held accountable for their role in the 2011 clampdown on free expression.
• The structural causes for the freedom of expression violations—such as the draconian Press Law of 2002 (Act No. 47)—remain in place.
• Those arrested and charged under the Emergency Laws which were lifted on 3 June 2011 have not been released, and further arrests are continuing. Opposition sources estimate that some four hundred people are currently on trial for their support of the protests.
• There is a deeply disturbing pattern of postponed hearings, trials and judgments which results in extended periods of detention for many people, including very young people.

We have seen some encouraging developments over the past months. PEN welcomes the announcement that 15 police officers will be put on trial for the alleged torture of doctors at Salmaniya hospital in February 2011. We were also pleased to learn about the negotiations involving the International Labour Organisation over dismissed workers and the proposed hiring of a diverse corps of police officers. And we have been encouraged by the vital role that women have been playing in promoting free expression in both urban and rural areas—a new and extremely positive development in the country. We understand that these signs are in line with a policy of dialogue and constructive engagement that your administration has favoured, and we hope to hear of further successes in the weeks ahead.

However, these developments do not lessen or erase the stark fact that leading writers and activists remain in prison and the climate for free expression has not improved, despite assurances by the government of Bahrain that it would accept and enact the recommendations of the BICI. The government of Bahrain continues to use excessive force, including firing shotguns and lethal amounts of tear gas upon protestors. These are the kind of systematic abuses that indicate a structural problem at the highest levels of government, and yet no relevant decision-makers have been held to account for the human rights violations that have occurred in Bahrain over the last two years.

Given these realities, our colleagues at the PEN American Center protested the resumption of arms shipments to Bahrain in May of this year. Moreover, while we recognize the stated aims of the Obama administration’s two-track approach of facilitated negotiation and dialogue, we must reiterate that human rights and free expression are non-negotiable; these are indivisible rights that Bahrain agreed to uphold by adopting numerous international treaties and instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Free expression is a baseline precondition for constructive dialogue to occur at all; with violations of that right continuing, it is difficult to see how a dialogue can take place that has lasting impact and credibility.

The Obama administration properly supported the drive for dignity and human rights during the Arab Spring. On behalf of my PEN colleagues around the world, I strongly encourage you to press the Bahraini government to take urgent and concrete steps to restore and advance these universally-guaranteed rights in the country by releasing those currently in detention in violation of their right to freedom of expression, amending laws that limit that right, and ensuring the right of all Bahrainis to peacefully protest and express their views—and to make real progress in these areas a clear benchmark for continuing U.S. support for the government of Bahrain.


Marian Botsford Fraser

Chair, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International