Bahraini prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab wears a face mask after he was released, at his house in Budaiya in Manama, Bahrain June 9, 2020. © REUTERS/Hamad l Mohammed

(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities in 2020 escalated repression against online and social media activity and prosecuted critics for peaceful expression, and courts upheld death sentences against opposition activists after unfair trials, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2021.

The Court of Cassation, Bahrain’s court of last resort, upheld the death penalty against at least four people who participated in opposition activities following trials marred by allegations of torture and due process violations. The country has at least 27 people on death row, of whom 26 are at imminent risk of execution, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. The government has put 6 people to death since it ended a moratorium on executions in 2017.

“Bahraini authorities use the many repressive tools available to them to silence and punish anyone who criticizes the government,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain has escalated its use of the death penalty, targeted people for their social media activity, and denied medical treatment to prominent opposition figures in detention.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

The authorities released a prominent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, from prison on June 9 to serve the rest of his five-year sentence for criticizing officials and government policies under the alternative sanctions law. But Rajab cannot travel or speak out on human rights abuses.

Bahrain prosecuted several public figures solely for their posts on social media, including the prominent lawyers Abdullah Al Shamlawi and Abdullah Hashim. In May 2019, the Interior Ministry declared that it will prosecute people who follow “inciting accounts” or share their posts on Twitter.

No independent media have been permitted to operate in Bahrain since the Information Affairs Ministry suspended Al Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper, in 2017.

Unsafe health and hygiene conditions in Bahrain’s overcrowded prisons remain extremely serious. Although Bahrain released 1,486 prisoners in March due to Covid-19, the releases have excluded opposition leaders, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders – many of whom are older and/or suffer from underlying medical conditions.

The authorities deny Bahraini prisoners adequate medical care. These include some of the 13 prominent dissidents serving lengthy prison terms since their arrest in 2011 for their roles in pro-democracy demonstrations.

The authorities in 2020 once again failed to credibly investigate and prosecute officials and police officers who allegedly committed serious violations, including torture.