Bahrain has faced an uncomfortable week hosting hundreds of parliamentarians from around the world at the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, with many delegates drawing attention to shortcomings in Bahrain’s own human rights record and to the position of some regime critics in jail, including Bahraini-Danish citizen Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who has been imprisoned since 2011.
More than 1,700 MPs, representing about 143 parliaments, attended the event. European MPs were among the most vocal critics of their hosts, with several members of the Danish delegation, including Søren Søndergaard, Chris Jensen Skriver and Kim Valentin, taking to the stage to call for Al-Khawaja to be released. Those calls were echoed by delegates from Finland, Iceland, Ireland and elsewhere.
Søndergaard said the Bahraini authorities had ignored his request to visit Al-Khawaja in prison. Another delegate, Karsten Hønge, tweeted a picture of himself standing outside Jau prison where Al-Khawaja is being held and added “His crime? Standing up for human rights and freedom of speech.”
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), described the assembly as “a PR disaster for the Bahraini regime”.
Human rights group kept out
The criticisms of Bahrain had been rising even before the assembly started. In the days leading up to the event, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said two of its staff members had had their visas withdrawn – something strongly criticised from the stage by a member of the Dutch delegation Petra Stienen, who called on the IPU president – Portugal’s Duarte Pacheco – to make an official statement clearly denouncing it.
HRW, which holds permanent observer status with the IPU, also pointed to the “extensive record of serious human rights abuses in Bahrain”, including the continued detention of Al-Khawaja and restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
Several Bahrainis were also arrested in the lead-up to the event, including Ebrahim Al-Mannai – seemingly for tweeting a statement that Bahrain should fix its legislative system and make the parliament “positive and influential … in the lives of the people”. The Public Prosecution Office said it had received reports about people “misusing social media” by publishing phrases and recordings “that would prejudice public order and the requirements for protecting security and national peace”.
In the past, many questions have been raised about the country’s record on elections and its suppression of political parties and individuals critical of the regime.
A spokesperson for the IPU declined to comment on whether Bahrain was a suitable venue for its event, which ran from March 11-15 under the slogan “Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance”. However, the spokesperson said “IPU Assemblies are an open space for delegates to express themselves freely on the issues of the day. They are opportunities for frank dialogue … MPs can raise awareness and conduct discreet diplomacy on a multitude of issues which concern democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
Niku Jafarnia, Bahrain researcher at HRW, noted that the IPU’s leadership had remained silent about the arrest of opposition activists, the continued detention of Al-Khawaja and the withdrawal of visas, adding that the silence “has only served to reinforce Bahrain’s whitewashing of human rights abuses, and has made a mockery of [the IPU’s] slogan of ‘For democracy. For everyone.’ ”
A Bahrain government spokesperson declined to address questions for this article about the withdrawal of visas for HRW staff, but said “Bahrain has a well-established democratic and parliamentary system” and said Al-Khawaja was serving a sentence for “serious terrorism-related crimes following the due legal process”.
On the day the event closed, Amnesty International issued a statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Al-Khawaja, who it described as a prisoner of conscience.
The pressure group said Al-Khawaja had experienced a cardiac arrhythmia on February 28 and was taken to Bahrain Defence Force hospital where a doctor said he should be urgently referred to a cardiologist. However, when Al-Khawaja refused to be handcuffed while in the hospital, he was taken back to prison without being assessed by a cardiologist.
Al-Khawaja’s daughter Maryam Al-Khawaja said in a statement that her father “continues to endure dire prison conditions and systematic denial of adequate medical treatment, like so many other Bahraini political prisoners.”