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(New York) – Bahraini authorities should immediately revoke an order canceling the results of the election for the Bahraini Lawyers’ Society’s governing board, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Lawyers’ Society, the official professional body for lawyers, held an election for new board members on November 26, 2011. Fatima al-Balooshi, minister of Human Rights and Social Development, issued an order on November 30 canceling the election results and reinstating the previous board and president to manage the affairs of the society for the coming six months. The ministry, which prior to June 20 had been called the Ministry of Social Development, has jurisdiction over civil society organizations in Bahrain under Law 21/1989. In its letter justifying the decision, the ministry said that the society “did not comply with the legal procedures.”

“It seems that adding ‘human rights’ to its name has only made this ministry more brazen in violating international standards for freedom of association,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The ministry should immediately revoke its order and allow the members of the lawyers’ society to elect their officers without the heavy hand of the state.”

The association’s annual election of officers was originally scheduled for April. The society postponed its election until November because the government imposed a state of emergency in March following pro-democracy demonstrations that started in mid-February.

Hameed al-Mulla, the newly elected president of the society, whose election was annulled by the ministry’s order, told Human Rights Watch that the ministerial order reinstated the board members and president who had been elected in 2009 for a six-month period. Al-Mulla, vice president during the previous term, said that five out of seven of the previous board members reject the ministry’s decision to reinstate them.

Al-Mulla said that the election had been held in accordance with both the society’s bylaws and government regulations, and that the society had notified the ministry of the election two weeks before holding its general assembly.

“The ministry refused to accept the notification letter when we tried to deliver it in person, so we sent it via special mail and received confirmation it had been delivered,” he said.

Representatives of the Bahrain Human Rights Society monitored the election, in which 85 eligible members elected the new board members, al-Mulla said.

In an earlier letter to the society, sent on November 23, the ministry asked for documentation to verify the membership of 135 of the group’s approximately 200 members, including the lawyer the ministry later reinstated to manage the society for the coming six months, al-Mulla and another member of the society told Human Rights Watch.

“We don’t have all those documents because some of them date back to 1977, when the society was founded,” al-Mulla said. He said that since the ministry has been supervising elections all along and the group has been sending membership lists each time, the ministry probably already has the documents.

“The lawyers don’t need the government to decide who will lead their association,” said Stork. “Do the authorities fear a new president might challenge their actions?”

In February 1998 the ministry also issued an order dissolving the board of the society because it was “involved in political activities” but later revoked the order when the society filed a lawsuit against the ministry, al-Mulla said.

Law 21/89 includes broadly worded provisions empowering authorities to replace board members and directors of associations, to prohibit associations from engaging in “political activities,” and to reject an application for establishing any association “if [Bahraini] society doesn’t need its service.” The provisions violate Bahrain's international legal obligations for freedom of expression and association under articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 2006. Under the treaty, any restriction on the right to free expression or association may be imposed only for a specific and legitimate purposes, should be clearly set out in law, should be the least restrictive possible to achieve its purpose, and should be applied in a non-discriminatory manner.

The authorities in Bahrain have previously interfered with, and in some cases shut down, nongovernmental organizations that are critical of the government or its policies. In September 2010, after the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) criticized the widespread arrests and alleged torture of detainees, Fatima al-Balooshi, the minister of social development, dismissed the group's secretary-general, dissolved the group’s board of directors, and appointed a ministry official as “interim director.” The ministry continues to deny legal status to independent human rights organizations like the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which it shut down in 2004.

Following the demonstrations in February and March, the ministry of Social Development dissolved the Bahrain Teachers' Society (BTS) for “issuing inciting statements and speeches to teachers and students ... to hold strikes.” In September the National Safety Court sentenced Mahdi Abu Deeb, president of the society, to 10 years in prison, and Jalila al-Salman, the vice-president, to three years.

In April security forces arrested the president of the Bahrain Medical Society, Ahmed Jamal, and the ministry suspended the society’s board of directors because, the ministry said, the organization became “involved in politics.” Authorities later released Jamal and pressured the group to elect a new board of directors.

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