The Bahraini government’s draft legislation on public meetings and demonstrations undermines the right of peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter urging Bahrain’s king not sign the bill into law.
The draft law will be the first significant human rights-related legislation to come before Bahrain’s king, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for final approval since the country was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council last month. In its letter, Human Rights Watch urged the king to instruct the Ministries of Justice and Interior to revise the legislation to bring it in line with international human rights law.
“Shaikh Hamad and other Bahraini officials claim that the country is on the path to democracy, but this legislation would move Bahrain in the opposite direction,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “This badly flawed law has no place on the statute books of any state, much less a member of the new U.N. Human Rights Council.”
Freedom of assembly is essential to forming and expressing public participation in political affairs and a crucial component of any democratic order, Human Rights Watch said. International law allows some limitations on the exercise of this freedom, but the limitations cannot compromise the essence of the right.
In the draft law, known as Amendments to Law 18/1973, Article 6 forbids “any speech or discussion infringing on public order or morals.” But it leaves “public order and morals” undefined, inviting security officials to restrict free expression and peaceful assembly at will. Article 7 authorizes police presence at any public meeting and allows security officials to break up meetings if any crime listed in the Penal Code is committed.
“Bahrain’s Penal Code still has provisions that contradict international human rights standards,” Stork said. “This new law says the police can lawfully disrupt a public meeting even if the participants are simply exercising basic rights like freedom of expression and freedom of association.”
The draft legislation originated with the government. The elected 40-member Council of Deputies (Majlis al-Nawwab) has approved it, and the appointed 40-member Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) is expected to do so soon. The bill requires approval of the king to become law.
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