I was supposed to be in Bahrain this past weekend to lead an international freedom of expression mission with representatives of several prominent advocacy groups, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists, PEN International, Index on Censorship, and Reporters Without Borders. However, after approving our mission in early April, and even offering to arrange meetings with relevant officials, Bahrain’s Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development decided to deny permission for the joint mission just days before we were to depart, meaning our organizations had already incurred travel and other expenses. The letter we received cited “new guidelines” that prohibit more than one organization from visiting at a time, and assured us that this was “merely an organizational matter.” But given that this is the second time this year that Freedom House has been denied entry to Bahrain, the ministry’s explanation seems rather dubious.
On February 14, 2011, large numbers of peaceful protesters turned out across Bahrain to demand fundamental changes to the island kingdom’s political system. Exasperated with the autocratic rule of the al-Khalifa family, they called for free and fair parliamentary elections, an end to the gerrymandering and other tactics that politically marginalize certain groups (particularly Shia Muslims, who form a majority of the electorate), and the immediate release of all political prisoners. However, security forces overseen by Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa—an uncle of the king who has served as prime minister since 1971—brutally crushed the protest movement, arresting, injuring, and killing many innocent citizens. As a result, more than 13 months after the protests began, the existing obstacles to Bahraini democracy remain largely intact.