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Briefing Notes: Bangladesh, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Ravina Shamdasani
Location: Geneva

Date: 4 January 2019

Subject:

(1) Bangladesh

We are concerned about violence and alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh before, during and after the recent elections on 30 December. There are credible reports of fatalities and numerous injuries on polling day alone. There are worrying indications that reprisals have continued to take place, notably against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases. Reports suggest that violent attacks and intimidation, including against minorities, have been disproportionately carried out by ruling party activists, at times with complicity or involvement of law enforcement officers.

There are troubling reports of media professionals being intimidated, injured and having their property damaged, as well as other constraints that have hindered free and public reporting on the elections. At least two journalists have been arrested under the Digital Security Act in relation to their reporting on the election. The blocking of at least 54 news and other websites since 10 December and temporary internet restrictions around election day have constrained freedom of expression.

The space for human rights defenders and organizations, political opposition members and interested members of the public seeking to speak out about the election is being restricted. There are reports of police breaking up recent peaceful public protests calling for a re-election, and reports of arrests and cases filed under laws like the Digital Security Act. Restrictive legislation, including this Act, should be reformed so that human rights defenders, civil society, journalists and all members of the public are protected in their exercise of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association and engage freely in debating the election and Bangladesh’s democratic and development processes.

We urge the authorities to carry out prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations into all alleged acts of violence and human rights violations related to the elections with a view to holding accountable those responsible, regardless of their political affiliations. We call on the authorities to take urgent measures to prevent further reprisals, and to ensure that law enforcement authorities exercise their powers strictly in accordance with the rule of law and principles of legality and proportionality. We also call on the national Human Rights Commission to play an independent and proactive role.

(2) Bahrain

We call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and to ensure that all Bahrainis are able to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression without fear of arbitrary detention.

Rajab has been imprisoned since June 2016 for tweeting in 2015 about Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Yemen and allegations of torture inside Bahrain’s Jau Prison. One such tweet read as follows: “We have the right to say no to the war in #Yemen and should struggle for peace and security but not bloodshed #Sanaa.” On Monday this week, Bahrain’s highest court – the Court of Cassation – upheld Rajab’s conviction and five-year prison sentence on charges of "spreading false news and rumours in time of war", "insulting foreign countries" and "insulting publicly the interior ministry". The UN Working Group of Arbitrary Detention had last year declared Rajab’s detention to be arbitrary.

Monday’s court decision brings into focus the continued suppression of Government critics in Bahrain through arbitrary arrest and detention, travel bans, harassment, threats, revocation of citizenship and other means. There have been numerous reports of human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and opposition figures being targeted for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The UN Secretary-General’s report on reprisals in September 2018 highlighted several specific cases where civil society activists and their families in Bahrain suffered reprisals for seeking to engage with UN human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council. In some of the cases, the activists were accused of terrorism-related offences.

The arrest, detention and imprisonment of individuals for the exercise of their fundamental human rights is in violation of Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it has ratified. We urge the Government of Bahrain to stop criminalising dissenting voices.

(3) United Arab Emirates

In a similar case, the Court of State Security in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Monday upheld a 10-year prison sentence and one-million dirham fine (about USD272,000) against prominent Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor was initially convicted in May 2018 on charges of using social media to "publish false information that harm national unity and damage the country's reputation". This was in relation to tweets he posted that were critical of the Government. As the Court of State Security is UAE’s highest court, he has no further appeal rights under the UAE’s judicial system.

We are concerned that Mansoor’s conviction and harsh sentencing relate to his exercise of the right to freedom of expression and opinion. We urge the Government of the UAE to promptly and unconditionally release Mansoor and to ensure that individuals are not penalised for expressing views critical of the Government or its allies.

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