The United Nations (UN) has found that a leading pro-democracy activist in Bahrain should never have been arrested and called for his immediate release, almost ten years after he was imprisoned.
In a report released this month, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has said there was “no legal basis” to justify Naji Fateel’s arrest and that, upon his release, the Bahraini authorities should investigate make his arbitrary detention and alleged torture.
“The working group notes with alarm the severity of the alleged torture,” says the UN. “He is urging the government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Fateel and ensure he receives medical care.”
Fateel, now 48, was a board member of the Bahrain Youth Association for Human Rights and a blogger dedicated to documenting violations when he was arrested in May 2013 for his protest activities.
It is alleged that he was severely tortured for days during which he lost consciousness and required hospital treatment twice.
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Under constant threat of torture and denied a lawyer, he has said he signed papers he was not allowed to read.
That year, he was convicted in two mass trials that were criticized by United Nations experts for failing to meet international standards.
He has been held in Jau Prison since then, and has allegedly been subjected to further torture and continued medical neglect.
This month’s opinion marks the third time since 2017 that a UN entity has called for his release.
‘I want to be hopeful’
Speaking by telephone from Bahrain, his wife, Fatima Fateel, welcomed the results, but said it was difficult to let go of her imagination.
When he entered prison, Fateel had a fifth child, Nidal, under two years old. Nine years later, Fateel became a grandfather, four times his age.
‘He was always a man who would try to help whoever sought his help, even if it cost him’
– Fatima Fateel, Naji’s wife
“I want to be optimistic, but I don’t want to be optimistic all the time,” said Fatima to Middle East Eye. “I have high hopes and then nothing happens and I get frustrated and upset.”
Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), which filed the claim that triggered the working group’s investigation, said the outcome was “the best we can have expect it”.
“You have a recognizable body that reviewed our claim and the government’s claim and gave an opinion and that opinion is very strongly in favor of the prisoner,” he said.
Niku Jafarnia, a researcher in Bahrain and Yemen with Human Rights Watch, agreed.
She said: “This is a big deal. What more could you want than pages upon pages of details of these torture allegations in terms of releasing someone when it’s a UN working group?”
Urgent medical needs
Fateel faces ongoing issues in prison, including a list of health issues requiring urgent medical treatment that prison authorities have denied him for several years, Alwadaei said.
Some of the pain he feels is the result of a metal rod inserted into his left leg after he fell from a three-storey building while protesting in 2011. The rod should have been removed 10 years ago, and is now difficult . Fate to walk and there is chronic inflammation, he said.
Fatima admitted that Fateel’s activism had terrible consequences for her family, but she always talks about it with pride. “I am very proud of everything he has accomplished,” she said.
Fateel, she said, had always been interested in politics, after witnessing police repression in her village of Bani Jamra, which hosted the opposition leader during an uprising in the 1990s.
It 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 batteries and rifle butts before dying hours later in a military hospital.
His activism was just part of his nature too, she said. “He loves people. He was always a man who would try to help whoever sought his help, even if it cost him.”
It has been three years since she and her children saw Fateel.
Once, the whole family would travel an hour and a half to visit him for an hour at a time, with no barriers between them, she said.
But over the years, that time 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 separating them. They can only talk through 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, as a protest, to stop their visits completely and now only connect via video calls, which is how Fateel met each of his grandchildren.
UN bodies have had similar findings in the cases of other key Bahraini activists who remain behind bars, including Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja.
But Jafarnia said the kingdom has recently focused on improving its international reputation, promoting tourism, trying to increase trade with EU countries and hosting events such as the recent Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly, and that could make a difference.
“We live in a world where there is no internationally clear way to force a country to comply with international law and even with its 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.