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(New York) - Bahrain's criminal court judgment against Mohammad al-Maskati, leader of a human rights group, clearly violates the right to freedom of association and should be revoked immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. Al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), was given a heavy fine for operating an unregistered organization, after the government refused it a license.

On May 6, 2010, Bahrain's Lower Criminal Court fined al-Maskati 500 Bahraini Dinar (BD, US$1325) for operating a nongovernmental organization in violation of the Civil Associations Law, which requires groups to register with the Development and Social Affairs Ministry. The group applied for a license in 2005, but the ministry never responded. The society nevertheless openly carried out activities, including public events and workshops regarding the human rights situation in Bahrain and neighboring states.

"Bahrain's claim that it respects and promotes human rights is incompatible with this kind of arbitrary restriction against a group that may be critical of official policies," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Mohammad al-Maskati tried to comply with the law, and the authorities responded by punishing him with a large fine."

The law, No. 21/89, stipulates in article 11 that failure to respond to a license application within 60 days constitutes rejection of the application. The authorities initially summoned al-Maskati to court on November 27, 2007, and the May 6 ruling followed numerous delays in the case. Article 89(2) of the law stipulates a fine of 500 BD and/or six months' imprisonment for establishing and operating an unregistered nongovernmental organization.

The government has also targeted other human rights organizations. In 2004, authorities revoked the legal status of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and ordered it dissolved after its then-president criticized the prime minister for alleged corruption and human rights abuses. The Ministry has refused to register the National Committee for the Unemployed as well as al-Maskati's group.

On March 23, authorities ordered the Bahrain Nursing Society (BNS) closed down. The organization was planning to celebrate the release of Ibrahim al-Dimistani, the group's secretary-general, who had been arrested for allegedly "harboring" a suspect who had been shot during an anti-government demonstration and providing medical treatment to the person. In August 2008, the Office of the Public Prosecutor had accused al-Dimistani and another high-ranking member of the group with defaming and insulting Health Ministry officials.

In 2007, the Development and Social Affairs Ministry drafted new legislation on civil society organizations, but the government has not yet submitted the draft to parliament. The draft law contained some improvements over the existing law, but also includes provisions incompatible with international standards. A version of the draft law circulated in November 2007 authorizes the Social Development and Social Affairs Ministry to close any organization for up to 60 days without a court order if it deems the organization to have violated any Bahraini law, including the associations law itself.

Other provisions of the current associations law are also problematic. Article 11 states that the ministry can reject an association's registration request if it determines, among other things, that the "creation of such association undermines the welfare and security of the state." Article 63 of the law prohibits the registration of organizations that engage in "political" or "religious" activity. The law does not elaborate on what constitutes "political" or "religious" activity.

These elements of the associations law violate article 19 (guaranteeing the right of free expression) and 20 (guaranteeing the right of free association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bahrain acceded on September 20, 2006. Any restriction on free expression or association can only be for specific grounds, should be clearly set out in law and should be the least restrictive possible. Vague restrictions such as those in Bahrain's Civil Associations Law, or complete bans on political or religious activity, are clear violations of the ICCPR.

"The government should immediately vacate the judgment against al-Maskati and should swiftly enact an associations law that leaves Bahrain in compliance with its international legal obligations," Stork said.

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