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UN expert calls on Bahrain to release woman rights defender and stop persecuting defenders

GENEVA (18 March 2016) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, today called on the Government of Bahrain to immediately release prominent Bahraini women’s rights and social media activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, and urged them to drop all charges for having exercised her right to free expression.

Ms. Zainab Al-Khawaja was arrested along with her 15-month old son on 14 March, in connection to the charges she was facing for tearing a picture of Bahrain’s King and ‘insulting a public servant’.

“The mere fact that a view is considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties against Bahraini activists,” said the independent expert mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to protect and support human rights defenders worldwide. “Deprivation of liberty on the sole ground of having exercised the right to freedom of opinion and expression and having defended human rights through peaceful means may be considered arbitrary.”

“Ms. Zainab is detained purely for her critical views against government authorities,” he said. “Such criticism is not only fully legitimate according to Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law. It is absolutely essential to the free and public debate necessary for a vibrant civil society.”

“I remain extremely concerned about laws, such articles 214 and 216 of the penal code, that criminalize offending the King, Bahrain’s flag or the national emblem, as well as the National Assembly or other State institutions,” Mr. Forst said. “The broad scope of article 165 of the Bahraini Constitution is used to silence a wide range of critical speech, considered to be ‘hostile’ towards the Government.”

“I call on the Bahraini authorities to respect and guarantee the right to freedom of opinion and expression and ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders to carry out their activities without fear of persecution,” he noted.

“The ongoing harassment and criminalization of activists in Bahrain should stop,” the human rights expert stressed. “I urge the authorities to cease such persecution and immediately drop all the charges against Zainab Al-Khawaja.” 

On a number of occasions the expert has expressed his grave concerns to the Government concerning the crackdown against Bahraini human rights defenders, including Nabeel Rajab, Maytham Al-Salman, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and many others.

Mr. Forst and other UN experts have repeatedly urged the authorities to review Bahraini laws and practices to be compliant with Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law, especially the freedoms of expression and association and the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of liberty.

The expert’s statement has been endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye.

Mr. Michel Forst (France) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2014. Michel Forst has extensive experience on human rights issues and particularly on the situation of human rights defenders. In particular, he was the Director General of Amnesty International (France) and Secretary General of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. For more information, log on to:

The UN human rights experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Freedom of expression: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Bahrain: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/BHIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Jamshid Gaziyev (+41 22 917 9183 / jgaziyev@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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