Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues


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The Bahrain Blues

Elizabeth Hays

Bahrain, its name meaning “two seas,” is a small island nation located on the eastern coastline of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.[i] Dating back to the time of the Romans, Bahrain was an important trading center.[ii] Centuries later, the Al Khalifa tribe rose to power in 1820 and established a treaty relationship with Great Britain.[iii] Bahrain became an independent state in 1971.[iv] Considered a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislative assembly, Bahrain has been ruled by King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa since 1999.[v] When he first became Head of State in 1999, King Khalifa released all political prisoners and gave women the right to vote.[vi] Lately, however,  the Bahrain government has been accused of major human rights violations and has seen an increase of low level unrest between security forces and protestors.[vii]

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On February 21st 2017, Bahrain’s Council of Representatives voted 31-1 on a proposed amendment to Bahrain’s Constitution that would enable military courts to try civilians.[viii] The Council of Representatives is the elected lower house of Bahrain’s National Assembly and is made up of 40 seats.[ix] Next, the proposed amendment will go to the upper house of Parliament,[x] the Consultative Council, which is made up of 40 members that are appointed by King Khalifa.[xi] Article 120 of Bahrain’s Constitution states that proposed amendments to the Constitution require the approval of 2/3 of both chambers of Parliament and approval of King Hamad.[xii] If approved there and by King Khalifa, the amendment is implemented and could have detrimental effects on the Bahraini people.[xiii]

Currently, Article 105(b) of Bahrain’s 2002 Constitution states that “the jurisdiction of military courts shall be confined to military offenses committed by members of the Defense Force, the National Guard, and the Security Forces.”[xiv] If approved, this bill effectively removes limitations on military courts by expanding their jurisdiction to civilians[xv] This change would further empower security forces amid a crackdown on dissent at a level not seen since the 2011 Arab Spring protests.[xvi] Yet, Brig. Gen. Yussef Rashid Flaifel, head of the country’s military courts, said the change is necessary to fight rampant terrorism in the nation.[xvii] The explanatory note on the proposed amendment confirms this intent by citing that the spread of terrorism in the region and the military courts flexibility and speed in investigations and sentencing justifies removing the restriction.[xviii]

Despite the national security concern, activists are outraged over this potential amendment.[xix] “The Bahraini king is effectively creating a police state with this de facto marital law” said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.[xx] The last time military courts prosecuted civilians was in 2011 in state of emergency in Bahrain. During that three-month time frame, the courts convicted approximately 300 people of political crimes in prosecutions designed to punish those in the opposition and to deter political opposition [xxi] Doctors, nurses, and the Bahrain 13 (a group of political leaders and human rights defenders sentenced to between five years and life imprisonment) were among the 300 convicted.[xxii] In June and August 2011, King Hamad transferred these cases to civilian courts, which upheld the results of the convictions, which were based on exercising basic rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.[xxiii]

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Furthermore, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (“BICI”), an international panel appointed by the King to investigate abuses, determined that the fundamental principles of a fair trial, including prompt and full access to legal counsel and inadmissibility of coerced testimony, were not respected in the courts.[xxiv] This has been an ongoing trend as civilian criminal and military Bahraini courts have been a part of the subpar fair trial standards in the wake of political dissent.

For instance, Bahrain civilian courts have routinely convicted defendant’s purported crimes that involved merely a defendant’s expression of political views.[xxv] To justify sentencing prominent opposition activists to long prison terms, a civilian court found that while unlawful means, such as the use of force, must be employed to qualify an act of terrorism, the force need not necessarily be military because terrorism can be the result of moral pressure.[xxvi] The increase of more speed and flexibility into an already unjust justice system in Bahrain is the wrong direction to go in.[xxvii]

Besides the clear and obvious unfairness, international human rights bodies have determined that trials of civilians before military tribunals violate the right to be tried by a completely independent and impartial tribunal.[xxviii] Civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford the full due process.[xxix] Leading Bahraini legal experts expressed fear that civilians will be prosecuted and denied fair trials and access to lawyers.[xxx]

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This prediction stems from the execution of three torture victims in January 2017 after civilian criminal courts convicted them and sentenced them to death under a broad anti-terror law.[xxxi] Judges dismissed the credible reports of torture and denied defendants access to legal counsel. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings investigated and determined that executions were, in fact, extrajudicial.[xxxii] Also in January 2017, the king reinstated the Bahrain National Security Agency’s (“NSA”) power to arrest. NSA is Bahrain’s intelligence service, that was involved in a systematic arbitrary detention and torture in 2011, resulting in death of at least one detainee.[xxxiii] The re-empowerment of the NSA began exercising its renewed power in February 2017 with the arrest of medical professional for providing treatment to a protestor.[xxxiv]

The unconditional support provided by its allies in London and Washington has influenced and increased these dictatorial efforts, which ultimately harms the people of Bahrain.[xxxv] With important allies like United States ignoring such human rights violations and preparing to sell arms without reform conditions, the problem will only worsen without a strong international censure of this move. This is exactly why President Trump’s deal to approve a sale of fighter planes to Bahrain without any conditions is concerning.[xxxvi] Instead of giving aid to countries unconditionally, the United States should be using that leverage to promote basic human rights. It is even more necessary to promote this for allies, such as Bahrain, in order to continue international progress and ensure human rights are respected worldwide.

Elizabeth Hays is a third year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Baltimore, where she majored in Jurisprudence. Her legal interests include administrative law, national security law, and maritime law. Elizabeth has previously interned with the U.S. Army JAG Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard JAG Corps. Additionally, she participated in the winter study abroad program in Curaçao in 2015/16. She is currently the Co-President of University of Baltimore Students for Public Interest (UBSPI) and a Staff Editor for University of Baltimore Law Forum.

[i] Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, NGOs to Bahrain: Do Not Allow Military Courts to Judge Civilians, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Feb. 6, 2017.

[ii] Bahrain, Word Atlas, (2017).

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Bahrain Country Profile, BBC News, Sept. 1, 2017.

[vi] Bahrain, World Atlas, (2017).

[vii] Jon Gambrell, Bahrain Lawmakers Approve Military Trials for Civilians, Yahoo News, Feb. 21, 2017.

[viii] Bahrain: proposed military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch, Feb. 23, 2017.

[ix] Jon Gambrell, Bahrain Lawmakers Approve Military Trials for Civilians, Yahoo News, Feb. 21, 2017.

[x] Bahrain: proposed military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch, Feb. 23, 2017.

[xi] Jon Gambrell, Bahrain Lawmakers Approve Military Trials for Civilians, Yahoo News, Feb. 21, 2017.

[xii] Bahrain: proposed military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch, Feb. 23, 2017.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Jon Gambrell, Bahrain Lawmakers Approve Military Trials for Civilians, Yahoo News, Feb. 21, 2017.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Bahrain: proposed military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch, Feb. 23, 2017.

[xix] Jon Gambrell, Bahrain Lawmakers Approve Military Trials for Civilians, Yahoo News, Feb. 21, 2017.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Bahrain: proposed military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch, Feb. 23, 2017.

[xxii] Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, Bahrain: Constitutional Amendment Frees Military Courts to Try Civilians, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Feb. 21, 2017.

[xxiii] Bahrain: proposed military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch, Feb. 23, 2017.

[xxiv] Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Bahrain: Constitutional Amendment Frees Military Courts to Try Civilians, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Feb. 21, 2017.

[xxv] Bahrain: proposed military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch, Feb. 23, 2017.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Bahrain: Constitutional Amendment Frees Military Courts to Try Civilians, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, Feb. 21, 2017.

[xxxi] Id.

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] Id.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Id.

[xxxvi] Josh Rogin, The Trump’s team deal with Bahrain could ignore its human rights abuses, The Washington Post, Feb. 19, 2017.