Lift Ban on Protests; Release “Twitter Offenders”
(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should immediately release the human rights activist Sayed Yusuf al-Muhafadha and drop all “illegal gathering” charges against him. On October 30, 2012, the government issued an indefinite ban on public protests.
Security forces arrested al-Muhafadha, acting vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), in al-Diraz, west of Manama, on November 2. Al-Muhafadha was taken into custody after he tried to photograph an injured protester at a protest against the ban. Earlier in the day he had tweeted photos of security forces attacking protesters with teargas in the village of Bilad al-Qadeem, the Washington Post reported. The day after he was arrested, the public prosecutor decided to hold him in detention for a week pending investigation on charges of “illegal gathering of more than five people.”
“Bahraini authorities are doing everything they can to suppress peaceful protests, even arresting human rights defenders monitoring the protests,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has a responsibility to suppress actual criminal behavior, but that’s no excuse for arresting a human rights defender monitoring a demonstration.”
Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, the interior minister, ordered a ban on all public rallies and demonstrations until “peace and social order is restored,” saying that authorities would no longer tolerate protesters “call[ing] to overthrow the government” and “rioting, and attack[ing] police.”
Since emergency rule ended in June 2011 security forces have frequently used excessive force to suppress protests, and protesters in turn have increasingly resorted to throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. On November 5, 2012, several homemade bombs detonated in the capital, Manama, killing two migrant workers and injuring a third, the official Bahrain News Agency reported. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombings or been identified by authorities as responsible.
Al-Muhafadha’s arrest fits a pattern of harassment and punishment of human rights activists. On August 16 a criminal court sentenced Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to three years in prison for organizing and participating in three demonstrations between January and March. Human Rights Watch has called on the court of appeal to overturn of his conviction.
On October 16, authorities arrested Mohammad al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, on charges of participating in an “illegal gathering” in Manama a week earlier. He was released on bail the next day; no court date has been set.
On October 17, authorities arrested Abullah al-Hashimi, Ali Mohamed Ali, Salman Abdullah, and Ali Abdulnabi and charged them with “insulting” King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa in statements they had allegedly posted on Twitter, human rights activists told Human Rights Watch.
On November 1 a minor criminal court sentenced one of them to six months in prison. On November 5 another minor criminal court sentenced two of the others to prison terms of one and four months, local media reported. A court is scheduled to issue its judgment in the fourth case on November 12.
“Bahraini authorities are only making the crisis worse by prosecuting people who call for peaceful protests and who criticize the ruling family,” Stork said. “The government should immediately lift the ban on all demonstrations and respect the universal right to peaceful assembly and free expression.”