Bahrain Should End the Cycle of Repression

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Amid escalating sectarian violence and an ongoing crackdown on political activists, members of Bahrain’s opposition movement recently called for holding a peaceful “Bahrain Tamarod” rally on August 14, the anniversary of Bahrain’s independence from Britain and the two-and-a-half-year anniversary of the start of pro-democracy protests. Then, on July 29, the government convened a session of the National Assembly to discuss strengthening the provisions of the 2006 Protecting Society From Terrorist Acts Law. Despite being couched as intending to combat terrorism and “halt the mounting acts of violence and business disruption,” it appears the 22 recommendations issued by the National Assembly intended to quash the August 14th protests and expand the legal justification for further suppression of political dissent. These recommendations join a growing list of rights violations, which cast serious doubt on the Bahraini government’s stated commitment to political reform.

The National Assembly, a body made up almost entirely of supporters of King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, issued these recommendations during a special session. Among the recommendations are provisions that ban all public gatherings in the capital, Manama; permit revoking the citizenship “of those who carry out terrorist crimes and their instigators;” empower the government to declare a State of National Security “whenever law is violated, the security of the citizens is compromised and private and public property is under threat”; and allow harsher penalties for “illegal” activities on social networking sites. Another particularly troubling recommendation states that “basic liberties, particularly freedom of opinion, should be affected so as to strike a balance between law enforcement and human rights protection.”

These recommendations constitute a serious new threat to human rights in Bahrain, particularly freedom of expression and assembly, and are a troubling development in a legal system that already has a substantial record of rights violations. Abdul Jalil Khalil, a high-ranking member of Al Wefaq, the most prominent opposition organization, has called the recommendations “a green light to tighten laws that are incompatible with freedom of expression and human rights.” Adel Marzouk, head of the Bahrain Press Association, described the recommendations as “a black page in the history” of the National Assembly, and added that they will allow the government to create “additional policies and laws that repress freedom of expression and media freedom.” The restrictions imposed by the National Assembly’s recommendations on freedom of expression, assembly, and other rights violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which call on states to guarantee freedom of expression and assembly; Bahrain signed on to the ICCPR in 2006.

The 2006 Protecting Society From Terrorist Acts Law, which these recommendations are meant to augment, has been widely criticized for its broad and vague definition of terrorism and has frequently been employed to arrest and prosecute activists. Since the start of protests in 2011, at least 60 people have been killed. Fifty activists from the pro-democracy February 14th movement are currently on trial, and many political prisoners allege that they have been tortured and denied access to fair trials. In November 2012, 31 members of the opposition had their citizenship revoked on charges of causing “damage to state security.” The Bahraini government has also been criticized for its extensive online censorship and surveillance, and arrests of bloggers and other online activists. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights believes that these recommendations, which the government has already begun implementing, signal an escalation of the government’s efforts to quell political protest in the lead up to the August 14th rally. Indeed, within days of the National Assembly’s session, Mohamed Hassan, a prominent blogger and activist, and Hussain Hubail, a photojournalist, had been arrested; both were reportedly tortured during interrogation, and Hubail was questioned about his connection to the August 14th demonstrations. In addition, last week, Maryam Al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who had hoped to observe the August 14th protests, and Hyder Abbasi, a journalist with Al Jazeera English, were not allowed to board their flights to Bahrain.

In the past, the Obama administration has been reluctant to criticize the Bahraini government despite the number of activists killed and arrested while exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. The administration has yet to comment on these recommendations, but it is imperative that the administration issue a statement of condemnation. The U.S. government must speak out whenever fundamental freedoms are violated, regardless of whether or not the governments responsible are American allies. Furthermore, thus far, the Bahraini government’s suppression of political dissent has not enhanced stability; rather it seems to have contributed to an increase in violent attacks targeting the police and public officials, which could ultimately threaten the safety of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and other American personnel in the country.

The Bahraini government should pull back from the implementation of these recommendations and allow peaceful protests to take place tomorrow without police violence or mass arrests. The government should also revisit the 26 recommendations submitted by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was established at the behest of King Hamad to assess human rights violations and other issues that emerged from the crackdown on protesters in February and March 2011. Despite the Bahraini government’s stated support for the Commission’s mandate, it has made few attempts to address the BICI’s recommendations, which include calls to relax media censorship, reinstate public and private sector employees who were dismissed for exercising “their right to freedom of expression, opinion, association, or assembly,” and “review all convictions, commute all sentences, and drop all pending charges for offenses involving political expression that do not involve advocacy of violence.” A full implementation of the BICI’s recommendations and allowing the protests to proceed without interference would be a powerful demonstration of the Bahraini government’s commitment to upholding international human rights norms and ending the political standoff that has gripped the country for the past two years.

Photo Credit: Ammar Adbulrasool

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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