Suppression of civil society continues in Bahrain
On 17th July, the Bahrain High Civil Court ordered the dissolution of the largest opposition political society in Bahrain, Al-Wefaq. Previously, the authorities suspended Al-Wefaq, halted its activities, frozen its assets and blocked its website. The authorities accused Al-Wefaq of a number of offences including 'calling for demonstrations and sit-ins that could lead to sectarian strife in the country.' Their dissolution has been condemned by UN agencies and human rights institutions. This is the 3rd recent dissolution of an organisation in Bahrain. On 14th June, the Ministry for Social Development closed down the Islamic Enlightenment Society and Al-Risala Islamic Society and, also arresting its head.
Many activists have recently been arbitrarily arrested, detained and prevented from travelling in connection with their human rights work. In the past two months, over two dozen human rights defenders and other members of civil society have been banned from travelling. A number of human rights defenders were prevented from travelling to Geneva ahead of the UN Human Rights Council meeting in June. Since then, others have been prevented from leaving Bahrain to attend other meetings.
Among those who have been targeted is Bahrain’s most high profile human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, founding director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and deputy Secretary General of the Worldwide Movement for Human Rights FIDH. Rajab was arrested on 13th June and remains in detention at the time of writing. He is facing charges of “spreading false rumours in times of war” and “insulting public authorities” in relation to tweets he published in 2015. On the first day of the trial, a new charge of “insulting a foreign country” was also levelled against him. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison. He has been held in solitary confinement and refused permission to attend a family funeral while in detention.
On 6th June, human rights defender Zainab Al-Khawaja and her two children, arrived in Denmark after she was forced to flee the country by the Bahraini authorities. Al-Khawaja, who began serving a 37 month prison term in March, was released on humanitarian grounds on 31st May.
On 20th June, Bahraini authorities revoked the nationality of Sheikh Isa Qasim, spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia community. In response, hundreds of demonstrators gathered to peacefully protest in his home village of Duraz, shown by the blue marker in the see map below.
The authorities have since subjected the village to an unprecedented crackdown, including restricting residents’ movements, sealing entrances to the village and placing blockades on the streets. Non-residents have been denied entry to Duraz and the community is suffering grave economic effects as a result. Internet access has also been severely restricted affecting not only Duraz but also surrounding villages. Pro-government social media accounts have called for photos and videos of protestors to be circulated and participants to be arrested and collectively punished.
The Bahraini authorities' intensifying crackdown has also extended to include free expression by Bahrain's media and civil society. On 22nd June, Ghada Jamsheer, writer and president of the Women's Petition Committee (WPC) was sentenced on appeal to one year in prison for four cases related to her tweets about corruption.
The authorities have also introduced further legal restrictions on the media with the adoption in June of Decree 68/2016, which increases government oversight on the dissemination of electronic media through a new licencing system. The law does not detail under what criteria Bahraini officials will approve applications for the electronic media license.