UN calls on Bahrain to release pro-democracy protester and investigate torture
The United Nations (UN) has found that a leading pro-democracy activist in Bahrain should never have been arrested and has called for his immediate release, nearly a decade after he was imprisoned.
In an report released this month, the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has said there was "no legal basis" to justify Naji Fateel’s arrest and that, upon his release, Bahraini authorities should investigate his arbitrary detention and alleged torture.
"The working group notes with alarm the severity of the torture alleged," the UN says. "It urges the government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr Fateel and ensure that he receives medical care."
Fateel, now 48, was a board member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and a blogger dedicated to documenting violations when he was arrested in May 2013 over his protest activities.
He was allegedly tortured severely for days during which he lost consciousness and needed hospital treatment twice.
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Under threat of sustained torture and denied a lawyer, he has said he signed papers that he was not allowed to read.
That year, he was convicted in two mass trials that were criticised by UN experts for failing to meet international standards.
He has been held in Jau Prison ever since, allegedly subject to further torture and ongoing medical neglect.
This month’s opinion is the third time since 2017 that a UN entity has called for his release.
'I want to be hopeful'
Speaking by phone from Bahrain, his wife, Fatima Fateel, welcomed the findings, but said it was hard to allow herself to imagine his release.
When he went into prison, Fateel’s fifth child, Nidal, was under two. Nine years later, Fateel has become a grandfather, four times over.
'He was always a guy who would attempt to help whoever seeks his help, even if it costs him'
- Fatima Fateel , Naji's wife
"I want to be hopeful, but I don’t want to be hopeful all the time," Fatima told Middle East Eye. "I have big hopes and then nothing happens and I get frustrated and upset."
Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy with the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), which filed the claim that initiated the working group’s investigation, said the outcome was "the best we can hope for".
"You have a recognisable body that reviewed our claim and the government’s claim and made an opinion and that opinion is extremely strong in favour of the prisoner," he said.
Niku Jafarnia, a Bahrain and Yemen researcher with Human Rights Watch, agreed.
She said: "This is a really big deal. What more could you want than pages upon pages of details of these allegations of torture in terms of releasing someone when it’s a UN working group?"
Urgent medical needs
There are ongoing issues that Fateel faces in prison, including a list of health issues that require urgent medical treatment that prison authorities have denied him for several years, said Alwadaei.
Some of the pain he feels is a result of a metal rod placed in his left leg after he fell off a three-storey building while documenting a protest in 2011. The rod should have been removed 10 years ago, and now makes it difficult for Fateel to walk and is chronically inflamed, he said.
Fatima acknowledged that Fateel’s activism has had dire consequences for their family, but that she always speaks about him with pride. "I’m very proud of everything he has accomplished," she said.
Fateel, she said, was always interested in politics, having witnessed police repression in his village of Bani Jamra, which was hosting the leader of the opposition during uprisings in the 1990s.
He was inspired by his aunt, Zahara Ibrahim Kazem, who tried to stop the police from arresting her son in 1996.
She was reportedly kicked and severely beaten with batons and rifle butts before dying hours later in a military hospital.
His activism was also just part of his nature, she said. "He loves people. He was always a guy who would attempt to help whoever seeks his help, even if it costs him."
It has been three years since she and her children have seen Fateel.
Once, the whole family would travel an hour and a half to visit him for an hour at a time, without any barriers between them, she said.
But over the years, that hour has been cut to 30 minutes. And now, only four family members are allowed to be at the meeting, and there are glass windows without holes that separate them. They can only talk via a phone.
'It’s a question of whether they care enough about their reputation internationally and I think Bahrain does'
- Niku Jafarnia, Human Rights Watch
As a result, in 2020, they made the decision, in protest, to stop their visits altogether and now only connect over video calls, which is how Fateel has met each of his grandchildren.
UN bodies have had similar findings in the cases of other leading Bahraini activists who nonetheless remain behind bars, including Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja.
But Jafarnia said the kingdom has lately been focused on enhancing its international reputation, promoting tourism, trying to increase trade with EU countries and hosting events like the recent Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly, and that could make a difference.
"We are living in a world where there is no clear way internationally to force a country to abide by international law and even by their own domestic laws," she said.
"It’s a question of whether they care enough about their reputation internationally and I think Bahrain does."
The Bahraini government did not respond to MEE’s request for comment.
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