(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities have arrested and harassed scores of participants in pro-Palestine protests across the country, including children as well as people who engaged in online pro-Palestine advocacy, since October 2023, Human Rights Watch said today.
The protests were in response to Israel’s grave violations in Gaza that exacerbated a humanitarian crisis following the Hamas-led October 7 attacks that killed hundreds of civilians in Israel. As of December 15, Bahraini authorities have arrested at least 57 people, including at least 25 children, in relation to the protests, according to Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). At least one person was targeted for their social media posts. Thirty-six people, including 23 children, have not yet been released, according to ADHRB. Human Rights Watch has confirmed the arrests of demonstrators and children through interviews.
“Bahraini authorities have activated their repressive machinery not only against peaceful criticism of their autocratic rule but also against Bahrainis demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinians facing bombardment, starvation, and apartheid,” said Niku Jafarnia, Bahrain and Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Bahraini authorities are certainly showing alignment with other regional states in stooping to jailing children for peaceful activism.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed the mothers of three children and one 18-year-old who had been arrested. Human Rights Watch also spoke to two activists working with Bahraini civil society organizations, and reviewed photographs and videos from the protests, as well as photographs indicating authorities’ use of violent force against protesters, including a child.
One activist said that the police did not detain any protestors during the first two weeks of protests, but called some protesters into police stations for questioning. They said that near the end of October, anti-riot police started using tear gas, stun grenades, batons, and buckshot against protesters, and also began arresting and detaining protestors.
Human Rights Watch reviewed photographs shared directly with researchers that show bruises and wounds on detainees’ bodies, apparently as a result of police abuse. One activist said that in one case, five riot police severely beat a man they arrested and “put their knee on his rib cage and ran over his head with their shoes.”
Authorities also called in some people for questioning based on their pro-Palestine posts on social media, including Ebrahim Sharif on December 20. Sharif, a well-known Bahraini opposition figure and political activist who was previously imprisoned for five years for his participation in the 2011 pro-democracy protests, was arrested after posting on social media criticizing Bahrain’s decision to join a coalition of countries responding to Yemen’s Houthi’s attacks on ships in the Red Sea. One activist said the authorities turned down two applications for marches, along a public road and in a public park, for “security reasons.”
One woman said that her 15-year-old son had been arrested even though he did not participate in any protests. She said that her son had gone out to dinner with friends on the night of October 27 and was arrested later that night. He told her that there had been a protest in the area where he was having dinner and that he was on his way home when a Molotov cocktail was thrown. He and his friends got caught in the middle of the crowd and were arrested by anti-riot police. “There is no reason for them to arrest him,” she said. “This random arrest ruined his future.”
He was arrested on a Friday, and she did not hear from him until he called her on Sunday to let her know that he was being transferred from Sitra police station to the Dry Dock detention facility, which holds children and adults under 21 prior to trial. “I called him ten minutes before 8:00 to 8:30, [p.m., on Friday] and he told me he was at an ice cream shop then I called again after 8:30 [p.m.] and he did not pick up,” she said.
Three other women said their sons were arrested while attending pro-Palestine marches in various areas of Bahrain.
The mother of a 17-year-old boy said that her son was arrested at a march on November 3 and was taken to the Dry Dock detention facility. He was only able to call his mother upon arriving at the facility the next day and told her that he had not had anything to eat since being arrested the night before.
She said that authorities have charged her son with having a Molotov cocktail and attending a protest, but that her son denied possessing a Molotov cocktail.
The mother of a 16-year-old boy who was arrested on November 10 at a protest said that authorities had not told her or her son what he was being charged with.
The families of the three boys have not been allowed to visit them in detention. The mother of the 17-year-old boy said that her son told her “[i]t is written on the prison walls that visits are not allowed,” and that her family had not been allowed to send their son clothes or other items. She also said that her son has a metal rod in his arm “because of an accident” that he was supposed to have taken out, and that he has not been able to do that because he is in detention.
While the condition and treatment of the boys in prison is unclear, as they are not able to speak freely to their families or lawyers, one activist said that the authorities had tortured those arrested at the protests, including children. ADHRB also reported that some of those arrested “were subjected to psychological and physical torture to forcefully extract confessions.” Human Rights Watch has previously documented torture by Bahraini security officials, including against children.
The mothers said that their son’s detention has been extended without explanation, and without a trial.
The mother of the 17-year-old boy stated that her son “was first supposed to be held for one week,” but that every time he goes to a meeting with the public prosecution, they extend his detention.
The mother of the 16-year-old said her family had not hired a lawyer because: “Everyone told us that a lawyer will not do anything except get us the information on the detention extension.”
Though the 17-year-old and 15-year-old boys have lawyers, the mother of the 17-year-old boy said that the public prosecution changed the date of a meeting without informing him or his lawyer, “and [he] attended without legal representation.” Neither lawyer had received any documents listing the charges.
The 18-year-old was arrested one evening during a pro-Palestine protest and then released the next morning without being charged. His mother said that when the police arrested him, they told him that they had been watching him: “[The police] took him in a Jeep and they drove around our town, [pointing out houses and identifying the residents], to show him that they know everything. They also told him that they know what his brother does and that they work together.”
She said that the police also made her son promise that he would never attend a protest again before releasing him: “Since he was arrested… police followed [him] all the time, at work, at home, and they even text and call him and ask him if he plans to go to a protest,” she added.
Children should not be detained except as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate time.
Bahrain normalized relations with Israel in 2020. Bahraini authorities’ suppression of pro-Palestinian speech is the most recent example of authorities’ systemic suppression of freedom of expression, assembly, and belief. Most recently, Bahraini authorities sentenced 13 men to prison after an unfair trial, in which charges were brought against the men in response to a peaceful sit-in protest in prison. Many human rights defenders have been wrongfully imprisoned since participating in the pro-democracy protests in 2011, and have been denied medical care, despite urgent health conditions.
Bahrain is not alone in their suppression of pro-Palestinian speech. Several European Union countries, including France and Germany, and the United States, have all also repressed, and in some cases outright banned, pro-Palestinian speech and organizations – actions that constitute blatant violations of freedom of speech.
“Bahrain’s government is so fearful of its own people’s just demands that it cannot even stomach children protesting for other people’s freedom, let alone their own,” Jafarnia said.