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The government of Bahrain should immediately release 20 individuals arrested for collecting signatures on a political petition, Human Rights Watch said today.

The petition for constitutional amendments would give greater legislative authority to the kingdom’s elected assembly. Addressed to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the petition reportedly has tens of thousands of signatures.

“This blatant suppression of freedom of speech and association flies in the face of the government’s proclaimed commitment to democratic change,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division. “The right to petition peacefully is fundamental, and this petition addresses an issue that lies at the heart of democratic reforms.”

On April 30, authorities arrested 17 Bahrainis at several public signature-collection stands. Deputy Public Prosecutor Ahmad Shinaishin stated then that they faced “charges of calling for change to the political system, provoking hatred and trying to destabilize public security.” Three of the 17 were released on May 2 without charge.

On the morning of May 6, according to the independent Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), security forces raided the homes of five other petition activists, confiscated computers and documents and took the five into custody. Authorities also detained and charged the spokesman for a defense committee for the detainees. He and several others have been freed on bail, but 11 remain jailed, many of them now in their third week of detention.

On May 16, the BCHR received a letter from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs threatening to withdraw the center’s license if it did not end unspecified “political activities.” The center has been active in a campaign to secure the release of the arrested petitioners.

BCHR president Nabeel Rajab told Human Rights Watch that officials in the Public Prosecutor’s office asked the organizers of the petition to pledge in writing that they have called off the public effort to gather petitions and that only persons who were
members of the societies prior to April 21, when the campaign started, would be eligible to sign. The officials said that would be necessary before the government would release and drop charges against those arrested.

Bahrain does not permit political parties, but the government has tolerated limited political activities by several “societies.” Four of these, including Al-Wifaq, which has a substantial following among the country’s majority Shi`a population, began the petition effort as part of a campaign to modify the constitution issued by royal decree in February 2002. Under the constitution, limited legislative authority is shared by an elected national assembly and an appointed consultative council of 40 members each.

Political liberalization efforts have not included reform of numerous laws restricting basic political freedoms. The government has threatened “legal action” against the offending societies—and now the Bahrain Center for Human Rights—on the grounds that they have violated the restrictive 1989 decree governing associations. Those arrested reportedly face charges of instigating hostility to the government, publishing false information and violating the prohibition against gatherings of five or more persons without authorization.

“The government’s response to the peaceful efforts of citizens to petition their government highlights the pressing need to reform the old decrees that were issued precisely to suppress any exercise of basic civil and political rights,” Whitson said.

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