Interview with Human Rights Watch consultant, Joshua Colangelo, barred entry into Bahrain

HRW releases report on human rights situation in Bahrain On May 4, Mr. Colangelo, a Senior attorney at US-based; Dorsey and Whitney LLP, and a consultant with Human Rights Watch; was bared entry into Bahrain.

Authorities cited his need for a visa, because of the "kind of work" he does, although Colangelo has frequently travelled to the country on various business matters with no prior incident.

In February, Mr. Colangelo spoke at a press conference at Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) in Manama. Mr. Colangelo has also represented Bahraini who were Guantanamo detainees.

HRW has released an 89-page report, stating that Bahrain needs to take "urgent steps to end torture and ill-treatment of security suspects during interrogation. The report also called on the government to promptly investigate all torture allegations and prosecute security officials suspected of abusing detainees" (Source: Saudi News Today).

Bahrain's ongoing crackdown has escalated since February 2011, targeting every level of society with fewer and fewer outside observers allowed into the country.

I spoke last night EST with Mr. Colangelo, while he was on a stop over in Paris, en route back to the Unites States from Bahrain.

Transcript

Why were you going to Bahrain?

I have been involved with issues concerning Bahrain for a number of years. It began with representing the Bahraini who were detained at Guantanamo, and more recently I have worked as a consultant with Human Rights Watch on domestic Bahrain issues.

This trip was largely in conjunction with that latter area of work. In particular, I was hoping to meet with defense counsel who appear to recently become subject of the government's crackdown.

I was hoping to perhaps observe proceedings in these newly established military court that were enacted under the...what in essence is martial law. And, also to just get a general sense of events on the ground these days.

Do you see a similarity between the military tribunals that are in Bahrain right now and the ones that are currently in place for handling Guantanamo detainees?

It is almost impossible to make a comparison because to date, as far as I am aware, no truly independent observer have been allowed to watch any of the proceedings at all in the Bahraini courts. We know, of course, that they were set up very recently, yet are already handing down death sentences.

That certainly raises a whole host of questions with anyone concerned with due process issues. But at the end of the day there is really no way to make a comparison, since nobody has seen the workings of these proceedings, except for handpicked members of the government, or pro-government groups.

Do you feel comfortable telling me the name of who you were representing there, or who you were going to give counsel to specifically?

No. I wasn't there to serve as defense counsel. I was going to be meeting with local Bahraini defense counsel, people who have represented clients in supposedly national security related cases over the years. But, I was not going to be providing any direct legal service to anyone.

Okay. And the individuals that who currently have Bahraini counsel that you were going to consult with can you tell me what their names were...mainly who is being charged, specifically? Am I misunderstanding?

Perhaps. There is a group of defense lawyers who for the past few years, and in fact longer, have represented defendants in national security cases have pretty long standing relationships with a number of those lawyers. They are , obviously, people I talk to, to get a better sense of what is happening in the criminal justice system.

I did want to see also to what extent they have been allowed to participate in the military tribunals. None of that has happened, but, you know, that is the nature of the conversation I was looking to have with them.

Can you tell me what happened to you when you arrived in Bahrain yesterday?

I was told that for the quote "sort of work" quote that I do, I would have to apply for a visa before arriving in Bahrain. When I said that I had made over six trips to Bahrain to do quote "that kind of work" close-quotes without ever needing to get a visa before arriving, I was told by government officials that things have changed in Bahrain over the last few months.

I said I thought that Bahrain was supposedly still open for business, and they said well that is true but still things are very different, so we won't be letting you in.

It was certainly a surprise, given the number of times that I have visited. Given the fact that I have never had any immigration problems on any of those prior visits.

Do you have an impression of why you were turned away specifically?

Well we know that the Bahraini have specifically denied visas to other NGO staff recently.

They have raised issues about certain people from Human Rights Watch coming to the country. I think it's just another step in the very obvious crackdown on defense that we have seen which has included everything from mass arrests to shooting peaceful protesters. I think this underscores that the Bahraini really don't wish to have their actions be subject to any more scrutiny than is absolutely necessary.

How would you define national security cases in Bahrain? What kinds of people fall under that?

Well, we have seen a number of cases in the last few years in which opposition political figures, human rights activists, clerics, and the like have been accused of plotting coup.

In fact some of these people have been accused of that kind of activity in a number of different criminal proceedings, none of which has ever gotten to the stage where any evidence at all has been presented. Typically, the cases are dropped.

However, periodically, the same group of people gets arrested and accused of to overthrow the government, usually with an implication that they are being aided by Iranian agents.

Yet, no proof is ever offered. But, even as we speak now, a number of these individuals are back in custody, although this time there are apparently no charges at all. At least none that have been publicized.

People outside of Bahrain...what can they do to help Bahraini?

You know, we have seen the US and NATO allies take very strong action in support of democracy movements in the Middle East and North Africa recently. Obviously, Libya is an example. Egypt, ultimately, was another example.

Those same countries have been almost entirely mute when it comes to Bahrain, despite the fact that international media was present when peaceful protesters were being killed for example.

So, I think people who live in the US, or the UK, or France, or other Western countries should urge their governments to get more involved, to make clear to the Bahraini that the rule of law needs to be respected, that human rights need to be respected, and that martial law is clearly not the answer to these problems.

I thank you very much for calling me en route to the US. I hope that you have safe travels and thank you so much.

You bet.

Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien researches and writes about national security. Her work has been published in VICE News, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian UK, Salon, The Daily Beast, and featured on the BBC, PBS Frontline, On The Media, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the UK and listed in The Verge 50..