(Washington, DC) - Bahrain should immediately revoke an order dissolving the Bahrain Human Rights Society's board of directors and assigning a government-appointed director to run the organization, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Development and Social Affairs Ministry order, issued on September 8, 2010, was accompanied by a statement criticizing the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) for "only serving one segment of society," suggesting that the group defends only the country's Shi'a population. The ministerial order follows arrests of hundreds of Shi'a opposition leaders and activists and credible allegations that many have been subjected to torture in detention.

"Taking over the Bahrain Human Rights Society is one more sign that the government intends to silence any and all criticism of its abusive human rights practices," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Bahraini authorities should immediately revoke its takeover order."

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the government issued the order at least in part because of actions the human rights society had taken on behalf of opposition activists detained in violation of their due process rights.

The ministry's order appointed a temporary administrator to manage the affairs of the society, an independent nongovernmental organization. In its statement justifying the government takeover, the ministry accused the human rights society of violating Bahrain's Civil Associations Law (Law 21/89). In addition to alleging that the society was not acting impartially, the ministry listed what it said were other administrative and legal "irregularities," including a failure to call a general assembly and to hold an election for the group's governing council as well as alleged cooperation with unspecified "illegal entities."

Abdulla al-Derazi, the society's general secretary, denied these allegations, and told Human Rights Watch that the organization has complied with all relevant administrative regulations.

 A statement published by the official Bahrain News Agency said that, "The caretaker administrator ... will open the doors to all Bahrainis, from all walks of life, to become members of the BHRS."

"Taking over an independent rights organization and packing it with its supporters is not the behavior of a government that respects human rights," Stork said. "Bahrain's leaders have apparently concluded they prefer full-throated authoritarianism to the discomforts of free speech and democracy."

In recent weeks, the society has made several statements affirming the basic rights of detainees, including access to lawyers and family members and their right to a fair trial. On August 28, the society held a news conference with several other organizations criticizing the arrests.

On September 2, the ministry issued a statement warning that it would take action against organizations that violate the Civil Associations Law by engaging in "partisanship." Later that week, Fatima al-Balushi, the minister of development and social affairs, specifically mentioned the society in a televised interview as one of the groups that allegedly failed to retain its impartiality, al-Derazi said.

Al-Derazi wrote to the ministry requesting a meeting to discuss al-Balushi's comments. He told Human Rights Watch that he received no response until September 8, when a ministry official called to inform him that the government takeover was imminent. The society has not yet received an official order confirming the takeover, al-Derazi said.

Human Rights Watch has criticized provisions of Law 21/89 that violate Bahrain's international legal obligations under articles 19 (freedom of expression) and 20 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in September 2006. Any restriction on the right to free expression or association can only be for specific grounds, should be clearly set out in law and should be the least restrictive possible.

The government takeover of the society comes less than a week after the Bahrain News Agency and a pro-government newspaper alleged that Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was part of an alleged "terrorist network," and accused the group of dealing with international organizations and providing "false information." Rajab is also a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. The BCHR is an independent group whose legal standing the government revoked in 2004.

On September 6, Salman Kamaleddin resigned as the head of the recently established official National Institution for Human Rights, apparently to protest recent government attacks on Bahrain's human rights community.