June 21, 2013

When European Union ministers meet their counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council states for a summit in Bahrain on June 30, the dismal state of that island kingdom's human rights record needs to have a prominent place on the agenda. Despite King Hamad's claims of reform, Bahrain is clearly heading down the road of greater repression and the EU ministers should make a point of clearly and publicly saying so.

For starters, Europe should call for the release of political prisoners – among them three with EU citizenship – who languish in jail, some serving life terms, for crimes such as 'possessing political leaflets', 'participating in illegal demonstrations' and calling for a constitutional monarchy. Bahrain's claim that it has released all those jailed solely for speech offenses is a blatant lie.

Freedom of association does not fare any better than freedom of speech: the government recently sent to parliament – where most members are the king's men – a draft law that allows authorities to take over and dissolve, more or less at will, organisations whose leaders criticise government officials and policies; and severely limits the ability of groups to raise money.

Unregistered organisations are 'illegal' and joining one is a criminal offense under the penal code. In May, parliament amended the Public Gathering Law to ban demonstrations near 'lively places, and places that have a security nature' and to require organisers to provide up to 20,000 Bahraini Dinars - $53,000 - as a security deposit to hold a demonstration. Authorities can refuse permission if they decide it 'harms the economic interests of the country'.

Just this week the parliament amended the penal code to prescribe five years in prison and a $26,500 fine for 'insulting the king'. When Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa came to power in 1999, he promised a new era of reform by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, allowing hundreds of exiles to return home and abolishing the notorious State Security Courts. But then the king unilaterally decreed a constitution that was all about preserving the control of the ruling Al Khalifa family.

Now authorities have decisively reversed the pretense of reform by prosecuting and jailing civil and political society leaders and drafting legislation to suppress independent civic engagement and political activism. Public frustrations culminated in massive demonstrations in February 2011 when tens of thousands took to the streets demanding greater political rights, an end to corruption and an elected government.

The Al Khalifas responded with a brutal retribution campaign against protesters. Special military courts sentenced opposition and civil society leaders and hundreds of others to lengthy prison terms after patently unfair trials. Under international pressure, the king appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the repression.

The commission's hard-hitting report of November 2011 documented torture, unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and other systematic human rights violations. The commission recommended, among other things, freeing all those detained for exercising the right to free speech and peaceful assembly and amending laws to comply with international human rights standards. King Hamad publicly accepted the recommendations but the activists remain jailed and the new legislation is in many ways more restrictive and punitive than what has been on the books.

Arrests of peaceful activists and human rights defenders continue. Last August authorities prosecuted Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, for organising and participating in three demonstrations between January and March 2012. He is serving a two-year sentence. Zainab al-Khawaja, also a Danish citizen, is serving multiple consecutive sentences for her one-woman public protests and 'insulting a police officer'.

Bahraini authorities are responsible for these human rights violations but the EU and its member states have an important role to play. They should first of all halt the policy of enabling Bahrain to continue down the path of repression while European officials mouth support for a rhetoric of reform that has no basis in reality. They should make clear in public and in private that the EU supports meaningful political reform - not jailing peaceful activists and imposing ever more restrictive laws to punish peaceful criticism, association and assembly.

Mariwan R. Hama is a fellow at Human Rights Watch