Bahrain should immediately release prominent human rights activist `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja from detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Al-Khawaja was summoned to a police station and detained on Saturday, September 25, a day after he criticized Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa Al Khalifa for the country’s current economic problems and past human rights abuses.
Al-Khawaja had made the remarks on Friday at the `Uruba Club in Manama during a Poverty and Economic Rights symposium sponsored by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Al-Khawaja, a vice-president of the center, is reportedly being held for investigation on charges that he violated provisions of Bahrain’s 1976 Penal Code that prohibits dissemination of “false or malicious news” that “damages the public interest” or “incites contempt” towards the government.
“Throwing people in jail for criticizing top officials is hardly compatible with the government’s boasts of democratic reform,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “With the arrest of `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, the prime minister is reverting to the authoritarian ways that had given Bahrain such a bad name in the past.”
On Saturday, the same day al-Khawaja was detained, the authorities also ordered the closure of the `Uruba Club for 45 days, ostensibly because of an event a week earlier, on September 19, in which a speaker reportedly expressed the opinion that Kuwait belonged to Iraq.
Bahrain’s king, Shaikh Hamad bin `Isa Al Khalifa, has been responsible for instituting numerous reforms since he succeeded his father as ruler in 1999. However, these reforms have not included changes to provisions in the Penal Code that continue to allow the government to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of association. Shaikh Khalifa Al Khalifa, the king’s uncle, has been prime minister since Bahrain became independent in 1971. He was a key proponent of the 1976 Penal Code provisions giving the government wide latitude to suppress public criticism.