(Washington, DC) - The Bahrain government has detained prominent opposition activists on terrorism charges, closed publications and websites, and intimidated civil society activists in the period leading up to parliamentary and municipal elections scheduled for October 23, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today.
Bahraini authorities should investigate torture allegations by the detainees and allow them to meet with lawyers, and rescind closure and takeover orders against independent media and civil society organizations, Human Rights Watch said.
"What we are seeing in Bahrain these days is a return to full-blown authoritarianism," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government has taken over associations and shut down media it doesn't like to silence the loudest critics and intimidate the rest, and Washington says nothing publicly."
Although the US Embassy in Manama is fully apprised of the current situation, the Obama administration has failed to speak out about what has become a serious human rights crisis. Human Rights Watch urged US officials to issue an unambiguous public statement deploring the sharp deterioration in human rights in Bahrain in recent months. Bahrain, a close political and strategic ally of the United States, is home to the US Fifth Fleet.
The crackdown began on August 13 with the arrest of opposition activists, some of whom had just returned from participating in a public event in London at which they criticized the government. The arrest of a blogger, Ali Abdulemam, on September 4 brought the total of high-profile detainees to 22. They have been charged under Bahrain's 2006 counterterrorism law with advocating and plotting the overthrow of the government. Most of the specific charges relate to their political opinions and writings, including "spreading false information" and "inciting hatred of the government." They have not been permitted to meet privately with lawyers, contrary to Bahraini law, and many allege they have been subjected to torture during interrogation.
A mass trial of 25 prominent opposition activists and bloggers arrested in August and September, including several living abroad who are not in custody, will start on October 28, according to a recent government announcement.
Other arrests throughout September swept up a large number of less prominent individuals, at least some of whom face charges in connection with recent street violence. Some trials in those cases have begun. The exact number of those arrested since mid-August is not known, but it appears to be between 250 and 300. Human Rights Watch said that it is also concerned about alleged torture and basic due process violations against these detainees.
Several of the prominent detainees are members of opposition groups that the government considers illegal and that advocate boycotting the elections. The Information Affairs Authority has also blocked websites affiliated with legal opposition societies participating in the elections and has shut down the newsletters of the two main opposition societies, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and the National Democratic Action Society (al-Wa'ad). On September 6, the Social Development Ministry dissolved the board of the independent Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) and appointed a ministry official to run the society, after the society expressed concern publicly about allegations of torture and other violations of the rights of detainees.
"The government has not just put the brakes on political reforms initiated a decade ago but shifted abruptly into reverse gear," Stork said. "Under the current circumstances, it is hard to see how these elections will meet basic conditions for fairness - such as freedom of expression and association."
The human rights society had been expected to play the leading civil society role in monitoring the elections. The takeover order was accompanied by a ministry statement criticizing the group for "only serving one segment of society." On October 6, the ministry announced it intends to prosecute board members of the group for alleged financial, administrative, and criminal violations of the Civil Associations Law (Law 21/89). The members of the dismissed board have denied these allegations. With the exception of the local Transparency Bahrain organization, most of the groups now mandated to monitor the elections are closely affiliated with the government or fully support its agenda.
During visits to Bahrain in September and October, Human Rights Watch met with government officials to raise concerns about allegations of abuse and the closing of media associated with opponents and critics of the government.
Bahrain is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which among other things, protects freedom of expression and the right to receive and exchange information. Bahrain has also ratified the Convention against Torture, which prohibits torture and other ill-treatment under all circumstances. In a February 2010 report, Human Rights Watch documented the systematic use of torture by security officials for the apparent purpose of coercing confessions from security suspects from 2007 through 2009. Bahraini officials claimed in response that torture is not systematic, and that any official found responsible would be punished. But to Human Rights Watch's knowledge there have been no independent investigations or prosecutions concerning cases documented in its report.
US officials have so far declined to issue any public statements criticizing the Bahraini government's crackdown despite the manifold human rights abuses it has engendered, although some have told Human Rights Watch that they have raised concerns privately with Bahrain at high levels. After the State Department spokesperson in Washington responded to a media question on September 15 with a non-specific statement of concern, the Bahraini government forced newspapers in Bahrain to use its version of the statement, which suggested complete US support for its actions, Bahraini journalists told Human Rights Watch. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, the US Embassy in Manama took no steps to correct the record despite being fully aware of the situation.