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The Bahrain government should rescind an order that closed one of the country’s leading human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. The closure of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights on Wednesday follows the arrest last week of its vice-president, `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, after he publicly criticized the prime minister.

Al-Khawaja was 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.

“The government’s crude attempt to silence its critics completely undermines Bahrain’s claims to be moving toward a more democratic political order,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “We hope the authorities will rethink this ill-considered order against the human rights center and drop its bogus investigation of `Abd al-Hadi Khawaja.”

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs order, dated September 28 and delivered to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights at around 1 p.m. the following day, dissolved the center, effective immediately. It also named an official to audit its books and activities. The order prohibits the center from resuming any activities, confiscates its funds, and requires it to surrender its documents to the authorities. The center’s president, Nabeel Rajab, told Human Rights Watch that electricity to the group’s office has been cut off and that he and other staff have been forbidden to enter the premises.

The minister of labor, Majid al-Allawi, reportedly said that the human rights organization had failed to heed his earlier warnings that its outspokenness on “political” matters violated Law 21 (1989) governing associations.

“Laws that allow the government to clamp down on free speech and freedom of association remain a big problem in Bahrain,” Whitson said. “This is a drastic setback to the efforts of Bahrainis to enjoy basic internationally protected civil liberties.”

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