Category Archives: Human Rights First
Yesterday, the Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights heard testimony from representatives from nonprofit organizations and activists concerned about the lack of progress on human rights reforms in Bahrain. Richard Sollom, Deputy Director for Physicians For Human Rights, presented testimony to a standing-room-only audience of legislators, journalists, activists, and concerned citizens.
Physicians for Human Rights Identifies Human Rights Concerns in Bahrain
In his statement to the Congressional Commission (read the full statement here), Mr. Sollom identified multiple areas of concern that have arisen over the past 18 months, including
- The targeting of doctors, including 48 medical specialists who were detained, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions.
- The militarization of Bahrain’s health system, including the ongoing presence of government security forces inside the nation’s largest hospital, the systematic interrogation of incoming patients and visitors, and the abuse and detention of Bahrainis suspected of participating in protests.
- The excessive use of force against Bahrainis, including the unlawfully excessive and indiscriminate use of tear gas.
Important Report Release Coincides with Testimony
On the same day as Sollom’s testimony, Physicians for Human Rights issued the report, Weaponizing Tear Gas: Bahrain’s Unprecedented Use of Toxic Chemical Agents Against Civilians. Sollom and co-author Holly Atkinson, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and former president of PHR, interviewed more than 100 Bahraini citizens during their investigation. Their 60-page report documents the nonprofit organization’s findings, based on physical examinations and medical records. The report found numerous injuries, miscarriages, and fatalities associated with the Bahrain government’s excessive use of tear gas.
Recommendations from Physicians for Human Rights
In his testimony, Mr. Sollom recommended that Congress support the Medical Neutrality Protection Act, H.R. 2643, legislation introduced by Representative Jim McDermott (D, Washington).
The principle of medical neutrality ensures
- The protection of medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport from attack or interference;
- Unhindered access to medical care and treatment;
- The humane treatment of all civilians; and
- Non-discriminatory treatment of the injured and sick.
The proposed legislation would
- Suspend non-humanitarian assistance to countries violating medical neutrality;
- Prevent officials from receiving visas who ordered or engaged in any violation of medical neutrality;
- Add reporting of medical neutrality violations to the annual State Department country reports;.
- Encourage U.S. missions in foreign nations to investigate alleged violations of medical neutrality.
Mr. Sollom also recommended that the United States
- Withhold all military assistance to Bahrain until the Government of Bahrain makes measurable progress on human rights and demilitarizes its public health care system.
- Deny export licenses for tear gas to Bahrain until the Government adheres to U.N. guidelines for its use, investigates the weaponization of tear gas, and holds law enforcement officials accountable for the excessive use of tear gas.
- Work with the U.N. to seek the appointment of a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Medical Neutrality.
- Ensure that policy decisions related to Bahrain support human rights protections.
A hearing on the state of progress on the BICI recommendations for the Kingdom of Bahrain was held on Capitol Hill this afternoon by the Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights. The last time the Commission met was 14 months ago.
Who Was There
Witnesses included co-chairs Representative Jim McGovern (D, MA) and Representative (R, IN) and Senator Ron Wyden (D, OR). Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, was present to testify on behalf of the U.S. State Department and the Administration.
After a brief adjournment for a congressional vote, witnesses Matar Ebrahim Matar, former Member of Bahrain’s Parliament, Leslie Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa Programs, National Democratic Institute, Tom Malinowski, Washington Director, Human Rights Watch, and Richard Sollom, Deputy Director, Physicians for Human Rights prepared to give testimony, however, I had to leave so I did not personally hear their testimonies.
Representative James Moran (D, VA) and Representative Lynn Woolsey (D, CA) were present to provide their views and ask questions of the witnesses.
The room was completely filled to capacity – standing room only — with journalists, activists, legislators, and others. In the audience, I recognized Bahraini journalist Nada al-Wadi, Cole Beckenfeld from POMED, and Bahrain Ambassador Houda Nonoo, among others.
Testimony and video will be available on the Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights website
Husain Abdulla of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) was not present but he entered testimony into the record and provided handouts, as did Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, and several others. Representative McGovern also entered today’s New York Times article on excessive tear gas in Bahrain into the record. Those submissions will be up on the Tom Lantos Commission website in a few days. A source at the meeting also told me that the video of the meeting will also be posted on the website within a few days.
What Was Said in the First Half of the Meeting
Representative McGovern stated views that were most sympathetic to the opposition. He said he “firmly believed” U.S. arms sales and services to Bahrain should cease until significant reforms took place. Among many improvements, he called for greater access to Bahrain for NGOs. He was most disappointed that Nabeel Rajab had been imprisoned and called for all detainees who had not demonstrated violence to be released immediately.
Representative Burton’s views could not be more different. He claimed that he knew the real story about Bahrain and cautioned the audience against putting too much stock in what he called “reports.” Citing his visits to Bahrain and meetings with the Crown Prince, U.S. intelligence officers, and the Commander of the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy stationed in Bahrain, he said that Bahrain had made significant progress toward reforms and that 18 of the 26 BICI recommendations had been complied with. He also alleged that there were people from Iran who were fomenting discord in Bahrain. Noting that he saw a number of activists in the audience, Mr. Burton said, “I think it would be a tragic mistake to predetermine if the Bahrain government has complied with the recommendations.”
Representative Woolsey was next to speak. She stated that she too had visited Bahrain but her impressions appeared very different. She said “I came away from that trip with a greater sense of urgency than I expected.” Problems she cited were the trial of the medics, the use of tear gas, and the use of rubber bullets. She stated that she opposed arms sales until real reforms had taken place: “The Government of Bahrain has started to take steps but as a passionate human rights advocate, I expect there to be real, lasting, and meaningful reform.” She also called for increased efforts by the Bahrain government.
Senator Wyden accused the government of Bahrain of “foot dragging” and cited human rights abuses, the targeting of children, the use of tear gas, and the imprisonment of Nabeel Rajab and other political activists, and the prohibition against peaceful protests and assembly as troubling practices that had to stop.
Deputy Secretary Posner‘s remarks focused on human rights, the need for dialogue, and increased progress on the BICI recommendations. As Representative Wolf commented, his views were moderate but basically echoed what he has stated many times before at press briefings. He called on both the opposition and the government to take steps toward dialogue and reiterated his previous comments that human rights was a problem for Bahrain to solve.
He did claim that the violence had abated somewhat “this summer” while “nightly confrontations” between young people and the police were still taking place. When questioned about the freedom of the press in Bahrain by Representative Moran, Mr. Posner stated that Bahrainis had access to a number of news sources, including satellite television, and were not restricted to accessing only state-run media.
Representative Woolsey asked him to clarify what he meant when he said his department “encouraged” dialogue in Bahrain and by what means, and to this, he replied that the Administration simply reiterated its commitment to both the government of Bahrain and the people of Bahrain. “We’ve made it clear that we have some concerns about human rights and the lack of progress toward dialogue,” stated Deputy Secretary Posner.
When asked about outside influences in Bahrain, such as Iran, Posner stated “What is clear to me is that there are issues in Bahrain that have nothing at all to do with anyone outside the country and what they’re doing.”
The meeting adjourned briefly for a vote called elsewhere.
I regret that I was unable to attend the rest of the meeting, but I will post a link to the video as soon as it appears on the Tom Lantos Commission website.
As reported by Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defender Program director Brian Dooley in his article for Foreign Policy on March 22, 2012, torture by security and police forces continues to take place in Bahrain, despite the government’s assertions that real progress has been made.
The (dozen teens) said they had been severely beaten by the police in the previous two days. “They beat us until they got tired, then other policemen would take over and beat us more,” said one boy….
…Several showed me severe bruises on their backs and arms, marks they said were from the beatings.”
Bahrain Denies UN Access to Investigate
Tellingly, Bahrain formally requested a delay of the official visit of Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, who was to visit Bahrain in early March 2012 to investigate. Mr. Mendez has had an illustrious career in international law, including a current position teaching American University’s College of Law and 15 years of work with the humanitarian group, Human Rights Watch. This action effectively prevented Mr. Mendez from entering the country and making his independent investigation on behalf of the United Nations.
According to a UN spokesperson, Bahrain’s excuse was that they were “still undergoing major reforms and wants some important steps, critical to the special rapporteur’s mandate, to be in place before he visits so he can assess the progress that Bahrain has made to date,” as reported by Andrew Hammond, senior correspondent for Reuters, on March 1, 2012.
Bahrain has rescheduled his visit for July 2012.
Bahrain Fails to Prosecute Those Guilty of Torture
Meanwhile, Alex Delmar-Morgan (a Wall Street Journal reporter who was infamously arrested by Bahraini security forces while he was covering the protests in Bahrain in March 2011), reported on March 11, 2012 in the Wall Street Journal that Cherif Bassiouni, former United Nations human rights lawyer and head of the royally-appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, stated that the Bahrain regime had failed to act on his recommendations that members of the government involved in systematic torture and homicides be brought to justice and called for accountability.
Please, Take Action
The use of torture by police and security forces in Bahrain has been, and continues to be, extensive, egregious, and systematic, and apparently, sanctioned by the government. If you are inclined, please write to Mr. Mendez at this address, or take other action as you see fit:
Mr. Juan Mendez
Special Rapporteur on Torture
c/o Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
CH-1211 Geneva 10
- Boy tortured in Bahrain now will be charged with crime (video) (humanrightstodolist.wordpress.com)
- Tell Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. needs to address human rights in Bahrain (humanrightstodolist.wordpress.com)
Andrew Hammond of Reuters reported on March 20 that Bahrain will prosecute 2o medics who treated wounded protesters, despite international protests and allegations of torture.
On February 9, 2012, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said that Bahrain should seek “alternatives to criminal prosecution” in the case.
“However, more needs to be done in several key areas. First, there are hundreds of pending criminal cases stemming from the events of February and March, including a substantial number where individuals remain in detention. The BICI report recommends that the government drop charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression. The government should fully comply with this recommendation. Also in this area, the government continues to prosecute 20 medical professionals. Though we are not privy to all the evidence in this or other cases, we suggested that alternatives to criminal prosecution be considered in the cases of the medics.”
Do you think this is wrong?
- Al Khalifa’s Vendetta Against Bahraini Medics (ayannanahmias.com)
- Bahrain retries convicted protest doctors (rt.com)
Representatives from Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights will not be visiting Bahrain, as planned, a decision they made because of constrictions placed on how long they may stay.
Here is the text of their letter, which explains their objections:
2 March 2012
Her Excellency Fatima al-Balooshi
Minister of Human Rights and Social Development
We, the undersigned human rights organizations, would like to thank you for your 28 February 2012 letters and your offer of assistance with arranging our upcoming visits to the Kingdom of Bahrain.
At the same time, we must object to the conditions placed on our visits, in particular the extremely short timeframe. The five-business-day limit appears to be arbitrary and will greatly impede our ability to monitor and research human rights developments.
In addition, while we greatly appreciate your willingness to arrange meetings for our organizations with relevant government officials, it is critical for us to know which meetings you are suggesting, with whom and at what time, as we need to be able to schedule a variety of additional meetings with community leaders, organizations, and other individuals who may have
pertinent information about recent events in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
We consider the limit imposed on the duration of our stay in Bahrain to contradict the oral commitments you and other officials made in meetings with our representatives, and to the United Nations, regarding access for international human rights organizations. In addition, informing us of these constraints so close to our planned departure dates calls further into
question the King’s commitment to interact with us on a constructive basis.
We therefore respectfully request that you reconsider these limitations and respond positively to our requests to visit for more than five days.
We thank you again for your invitation and look forward to your response to this request.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
Director, Human Rights Defenders
Human Rights First
Sara Leah Whitson
Human Rights Watch
Physicians for Human Rights
cc: Khalifa Al Khalifa Director, Human Rights Organizations
- HRF’s Brian Dooley refused entry into Bahrain (thoolen.wordpress.com)
- Congressmen Confront Bahrain Over Recent NGO Visa Restrictions (huffingtonpost.com)