Bahrain: international NGOs raise concerns for prisoners of conscience

Ahead of Bahrain’s UPR adoption at the 36th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 21 September 2017, English PEN has joined fellow NGOs from across the world to call on our governments to demand better treatment for Bahrain’s detainees and to continue calling for the release of all those currently in detention simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, or belief.

Boris Johnson MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office

20 September 2017

Dear Secretary of State

We are writing to draw your attention to the ongoing arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of human rights defenders and other prisoners of conscience detained in Bahrain and to urge your government to take action on their behalf.

There are widespread concerns for the health and well-being of twelve high profile human rights defenders and political leaders in Bahrain who are serving lengthy prison sentences in Jau Prison solely related to their political and human rights activities.

The twelve prisoners are Abdulwahab Hussain, Mohammad Ali Ismael, Mohammad Hassan Jawad, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Sheikh Mirza Al-Mahroos, Sheikh Abdulhadi Al-Mukhoder, Sheikh Abduljalil Al-Muqdad, Sheikh Mohammad Habib Al-Muqdad, Hassan Mushaima, Sheikh Saeed Al-Noori, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace and Sheikh Ali Salman. Eleven of them are serving sentences handed down by military court following unfair trials in June 2011, and upheld by civilian appeals courts in 2013; the twelfth, Sheikh Ali Salman, is the Secretary-General of the now-dissolved Al Wefaq political society, who was sentenced in 2015 on politically-motivated charges.

According to our information, they have been subjected to ill-treatment in detention, including being denied access to adequate medical treatment, having limitations placed on family visits, having their phone calls monitored and cut off, and being prevented from receiving medical treatment unless they are shackled, contrary to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules). Specifically, prisoners are shackled from ankles to wrists, so many of these prisoners have not had medical appointments in six months. As well, their visits with family members have been reduced from two one-hour visits per month to two half-hour visits per month.

Of particular concern is the case of Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, detained by the Bahraini authorities for his role in nonviolent demonstrations during the 2011 pro-democracy movement and later sentenced to life imprisonment. Security personnel subjected Dr. Al-Singace to severe torture and mistreatment during his initial detention, including sexual abuse, beatings, two months of solitary confinement, and psychological abuse such as threats against his family.

The harm from this torture has been compounded by deliberate medical neglect. Dr. Al-Singace is a survivor of childhood polio and relies on a cane, crutches, or wheelchair for mobility. He also suffers from sickle cell anaemia, which causes periodic episodes of intense pain. Despite this, the authorities have not provided him with any medication since mid-March 2017. Furthermore, as a result of the new restrictions imposed by the prison administration, like arbitrary shackling, the authorities have failed to take Dr. Al-Singace to any of his scheduled medical appointments. The withholding of medication is due entirely to the actions of the prison administration and was condemned in a recent joint statement by ten human rights groups, including many of the undersigned organizations.

Dr. Al-Singace is just one of the thousands of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience suffering poor prison conditions and mistreatment in Bahrain. The twelve high profile prisoners of conscience regularly endure degrading treatment, such as disruption of prayer rituals and, in some cases, having their beards and heads forcibly shaved. The authorities have also subjected them to torture in the form of forced standing, verbal and sexual assault, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. The Government of Bahrain consistently refuses to investigate allegations of torture, and continues to deny them adequate medical care.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has adopted opinions on two of the detainees in question, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Sheikh Ali Salman, finding their detention to be arbitrary. We note that the remaining ten inmates were tried in the same case as Mr. Al-Khawaja and believe that their imprisonment also amounts to circumstances of arbitrary detention. On 28 February, your government signed a joint statement at the 26th Session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the release of all persons imprisoned solely for exercising their human rights, including persons identified as arbitrarily detained by the WGAD.

In May, the United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture found that “there continue to be numerous and consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment of persons who are deprived of their liberty in all places of detention [in Bahrain].” They noted that political prisoners, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace and Abdulwahab Hussain, routinely face personally targeted abuse, including excessive and unjustified solitary confinement, and arbitrary deprivation of medical care; and called for their release.

The Government of Bahrain must not be permitted to arbitrarily imprison and abuse human rights defenders and political activists with impunity. We therefore urge your government to continue to put pressure on Bahrain, demanding that the authorities provide humane treatment and proper medical care to all detainees, in line with international detention standards, and allow the prisoners to meet their families. We additionally urge you to press the Government of Bahrain to permanently resolve these cases by releasing the high profile political leaders and human rights defenders, and all other prisoners held solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, or belief.

We thank you for your attention and consideration.


Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)
English PEN
French PEN
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Index on Censorship
PEN International
PEN Suisse Romand
PEN Québécois
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

Iran: PEN warmly welcomes the release of Mahvash Sabet

Teacher and poet Mahvash Sabet was one of a group of seven Baha’i leaders known as the ‘Yaran-i-Iran’ – ‘Friends of Iran’ – detained in 2008 for their faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran. On 18 September 2017, Sabet was the first of the group to be released from prison, having served almost a decade in detention. Following her release, she has issued a public call for the release of her six fellow detainees.

In March 2008, Sabet was the first of the group to be arrested.  The six others were arrested in May, and Sabet and her co-defendants were held for twenty months without charge. Their trial finally began on 12 January 2010, on false charges including espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic and acting against the security of the country. Five months later, on 14 June 2010, each of the defendants was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, after six brief court sessions characterised by their lack of due legal process. These sentences were later reduced to ten years each, after a delayed application of the 2013 penal code to the case. They never received official copies of the original verdict or the ruling on appeal despite repeated requests.

Mahvash Sabet began writing poetry in prison and a collection of her prison poems, adapted from Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, was published in the UK in April 2013 (George Ronald Publisher). As Nakhjavani described in the introduction to the collection, ‘her poems allowed her to speak when words were denied, to talk when no one was listening to her.’

On learning of her release, Nakhjavani commented:

She bore witness to the sufferings of those around her in these poems, rather than drawing attention to herself. It was as though she saw imprisonment as an opportunity to be an advocate for all who were unjustly deprived of freedom.

Sabet’s poetry has played an important role in English PEN’s campaigns for her release – poets including Isobel Dixon, Sarah Roby, Joolz Sparkes, Gerda Stevenson and Sarah Westcott performed her work during Ledbury Poetry Festival , award-winning poet Alice Oswald shared her work at a special event At the Chapel in Bruton, Somerset, and two writers – Emily Critchley and Rod Mengham – created new work inspired by Sabet for the English PEN Modern Literature Festival.

In August 2017, English PEN’s director Antonia Byatt travelled to Sweden to accept the Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award on behalf of Mahvash Sabet, just months after the Nobel laureate and former PEN President’s tragic death. During the ceremony, Byatt commented:

It is particularly moving to be here today and to accept a prize named after our wonderful colleague Liu Xiaobo following his tragic death earlier this year. Mahvash, like Liu Xiaobo and his brave widow Liu Xia, knows only too well too well the pain and loneliness of being separated from loved ones, the powerlessness of being unlawfully detained. And like Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, she too chose poetry as a way of expressing and seeking to understand her situation, of maintaining a connection with her friends, her family, and the outside world that she so dearly misses.

English PEN is delighted that Mahvash Sabet has finally been released from prison and now back with her friends and family. We nevertheless continue for the release of her colleagues and to urge the Iranian authorities not to impose any conditions or restrictions on Sabet following her release.


If you would like to send a message to Mahvash Sabet welcoming her release you can do so via or the comments box below.

Eritrea: a muzzled state

Today marks the sixteen-year anniversary of the crackdown on dissent in Eritrea, in which twelve journalists were arrested for their free expression work. Sixteen years later the whereabouts of the detained journalists remains unknown and freedom of expression continues to be severely repressed.

To mark the anniversary, English PEN is proud to publish ‘Eritrea: a muzzled state’, a report by Eyob Teklay Ghilazghy, secretary of PEN Eritrea and our former writer-in-residence in partnership with ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Free Word and PEN International. The report offers a chilling insight into the situation on the ground in Eritrea and urges the international community to come together in order to implement real change.

Download the report

Meanwhile Eritrean writers – Idris Said Aba Arre, Medhanie Haile, Seyoum Tsehaye, Amanuel Asrat, and Dawit Isaak – will also be featured as Empty Chairs during the Writers in Prison Committee meeting at PEN International’s 83rd annual Congress in Lviv, Ukraine, which brings together over 200 PEN members from across the globe. Each year, PEN International selects individual imprisoned writers whose cases are emblematic of the dangers faced by their colleagues around the world. These writers are represented by an ‘empty chair’ which acts as a reminder of the writers’ absence and separation from their colleagues.

Eritrea: A Muzzled State
Executive Summary

The current situation in Eritrea is the result of a long systematic process and strategy which the Eritrean revolution and government have effectively and successfully implemented for decades.

Since its secession from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has been ruled by a dictatorial regime with no constitution, national assembly or elections. Senior party and government officials who demanded democratic reform in 2001 are languishing in secret prison cells, alongside journalists, without charge or trial.

The Eritrean population has been subject to grave human rights violations, resulting in the total devastation of all aspects of life in the country and causing humanitarian crises within and beyond the borders of Eritrea. Neighbouring countries and those further afield are flooded with Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the country.

Eritrea is one of the least free countries in the world in terms of freedom of expression. In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders, Eritrea was ranked 179th of 180 countries. Even state-supported journalists and artists are being subjected to intimidation, harassment, detention and torture.

Meanwhile, the regime’s spies closely monitor the exchange of information and communications. Any opinion, views, narratives and conversations that deviate from the government narrative can lead to the arrest, detention and torture of those involved. The government’s activities of surveillance, monitoring, threats and reprisals with the aim of silencing people of opposing views is not limited to people inside the country.

Human rights organisations have to work together to influence global and regional policies and approaches towards the Eritrean regime with the aim of holding the current government accountable for the crimes it has committed against humanity.


Protest at the Eritrean Embassy

English PEN will be joining colleagues from One Day Seyoum for a protest outside the Embassy of Eritrea in London between 15.30 – 17.30 this Thursday 21 September. Please join us – whether for five minutes or the full two hours – at 96 White Lion Street, N1 9PF London, United Kingdom.

More details here.



2018 PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize open for submissions

Entrants are to be books of high literary merit – that is, not primarily written for the academic market – and can cover all historical periods.

Publishers may draw attention to no more than two relevant books on their lists or imprints. The books must be published between 1 January and 31 December 2017.

They should be notified to the Administrator at and finished or proof copies must be available by 17 November 2017, the closing date for submissions. One copy of each title, clearly marked PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize, should be sent directly to English PEN’s office at the Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3GA by this date.

The shortlist will be revealed in Spring 2018.

Judges will be announced shortly and the winner will be revealed at a high profile event in June 2018.

Further information about the prize and its rules can be found at:

Libya: fears for safety of writers and editors over literary collection

PEN is deeply concerned about the safety of the writers and editors of a new literary collection entitled Sun on Closed Windows. The book, which includes short stories by 25 writers as well as two essays by prominent Libyan literary critics, was published in Arabic in May 2017 by Darf Publishers, London, UK.

The writers and editors have received death threats and other insults. Fearing for their lives, some are currently in hiding with their families. The threats, numbered in their thousands, have appeared predominantly as comments on Facebook and Twitter. The attacks started after a literary event featuring some of the contributors at the Public Library (Dar Al-Kitab) in the city of Zawiya on 26 August 2017. Despite similar events having taken place earlier this year, in Cairo in May and in Tripoli in July, the collection sparked outrage shortly after the event in Zawiya due to the intervention of an Islamic group which controls the city in the absence of a government presence.

The Islamic group arrested the event organiser, Marwan Jbouda, releasing him the following day. The Public Library was closed with the intention of preventing any further literary events.

The main reason for the intervention relates to a piece by the novelist Ahmad al-Bokhari which is considered ‘too obscene’. Photos of the controversial passages of al-Bokhari’s story were published online and went viral causing a tidal wave of abuse and threats. In particular, Laila Moghrabi and Khaled Mattawa, the two co-editors, as well as al-Bokhari and the women contributors, have all become the target of countless social media attacks.

The Libyans authorities, in particular the Ministry of Culture, have condemned the book’s content, deeming it to be against ‘public morality’, and ordered the confiscation of all copies. The Ministry has also stated that the book which was published outside Libya was not subject to the country’s censorship rules. However, the passages in question originally appeared in al-Bokhari’s novel Kashan, which had been reviewed by the Ministry prior to its publication in 2012.

Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, said:

Through their actions and statements the Libyan authorities are undermining freedom of expression. Instead of supporting the writers and editors who are targeted by a religious group, the Ministry of Culture has condemned the contents of a book which is a work of literature. Libyan authorities should take all necessary measures to protect the life and the safety of the writers, editors, and all those involved with the book, and take effective steps to investigate and prosecute those who are threatening their safety, and uphold the writers’ right to write and readers’ right to read.

Laila Moghrabi is a Libyan writer and journalist who has worked with several local and international newspapers and websites. Dr. Khaled Mattawa is a Libyan-American poet, literary critic, translator, and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Mattawa is also the President of the Arete Foundation for Arts, and professor of English at the University of Michigan. Sun on Closed Windows (in Arabic Shams ‘ala Nawafidh Mughlaqa) is a joint project between the Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture and Darf Publishers of London. The book contains various works – short stories, poetry and prose, by 25 writers. It also includes an introduction by Dr. Farida Al-Masri of the University of Tripoli, and a study of the texts by Ahmad al-Faitouri, a Libyan literary critic now residing in Cairo.

English PEN urges the Libyan authorities to investigate these threats and to guarantee the safety of those involved with the book as a matter of urgency.