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(Brussels)--New laws and lengthy jail terms for activists have put freedom of association in Bahrain under severe threat, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Bahraini authorities have left hardly any space for peaceful political dissent. Through a mix of restrictive laws and abusive policies, the government is sending a clear message that it will not tolerate calls for reform that challenge the ruling family’s monopoly on power.

The 87-page report, “‘Interfere, Restrict, Control’: Restraints on Freedom of Association in Bahrain,”examines restrictive laws and policies that stifle civic and political groups and trade unions. The report shows how authorities use unjust laws to restrict freedom of association by arbitrarily rejecting registration applications and intrusively supervising independent organizations. The government takes over and dissolves ­– more or less at will – organizations whose leaders criticize government officials and policies, and severely limits the ability of groups to raise money and to receive foreign funding.

“Bahrain claims to be on a path to political reform, but it is heading altogether in the wrong direction,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The new draft law on associations – just like the continued imprisonment of opposition activists – shows all too clearly how the ruling family is rolling back genuine reform on so many fronts.”

The European Union and the United States should press Bahrain’s government to release immediately all those jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Three are dual citizens of Bahrain and EU member states.
The US and EU and its member states should also publicly press Bahrain to revise the Draft Law on Civil Organizations and Institutions to bring the legislation into line with international standards.

Bahrain’s key allies like the United States and the United Kingdom should stop the public pretense that Bahrain is moving in the right direction, Human Rights Watch said. They should make clear in public and in private again that meaningful dialogue about political reform is incompatible with locking up peaceful activists and imposing ever more restrictive laws.

“EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and several EU ministers will be meeting their Gulf Cooperation Council counterparts in Bahrain on June 30,” Stork said. “They should convey beforehand the expectation that key political prisoners will be released in advance of the summit, including the three dual EU citizens.”

In August 2012 the government approved the Draft Law on Civil Organizations and Institutions without consulting local organizations and sent it to parliament in January 2013. Its provisions are much more restrictive than those in an earlier, 2007, draft, and in many respects worse than the 1989 law still in effect. For instance, the draft law would allow authorities to deny an organization’s request to register if authorities determine that “society does not need its services or if there are other associations that fulfill the society’s need” and would prohibit groups from inviting non-Bahrainis for meetings and activities without express permission from the Social Development Ministry.

The report documents the use of the 1989 Law of Associations to arbitrarily reject registration applications and intrusively supervise nongovernmental groups. Even before the political crisis of 2011, authorities used the law to take over and dissolve organizations whose leaders criticized government officials or their policies.

In September 2010, for instance, the Social Development Ministry dissolved the board of the Bahrain Human Rights Society and replaced its president with a ministry official after the organization criticized authorities for violating the due process rights of detained opposition activists. In 2004 authorities dissolved the Bahrain Center for Human Rights after its then-president publicly criticized the prime minister for alleged corruption and human rights abuses.

Repression against independent organizations increased following the February-March 2011 pro-democracy demonstrations. Thirteen of the leading protesters, many of them also leaders of opposition civic and political groups, remain jailed after manifestly unfair trials, seven serving life terms. Court documents showed that they were convicted solely for offenses related to the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

In April 2011, the Social Development Ministry dissolved the Bahrain Teachers’ Society and replaced the Bahrain Medical Society’s board members with a pro-government board after both organizations supported demonstrators’ demands for greater political rights. InNovember 2011, the ministry canceled the results of Bahrain Lawyers’ Society election after the group elected perceived government critics to its board.

In the case of opposition political groups, authorities have used the current Law for Political Societies, the Public Gathering Law of 1973, and the Press Law of 2002 to stifle their freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly. Among those jailed in 2011 were Ibrahim Sharif, leader of the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), and Shaikh Muhammad Ali al-Mahfoodh of the Islamic Action Society (Amal).

In May, the Chamber of Deputies amended the Public Gathering Law to ban demonstrations near “hospitals, airports, embassies, consulates, economic, and lively places, and places that have a security nature” and to require organizers to provide up to 20,000 Bahraini Dinars (US$53,000) as a security deposit. Authorities can reject permission for a protest based on vague terms, including demonstrations that might “harm the economic interests of the country.” The new amendment needs approval from the Shura Council and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s signature to become law.

Under Bahrain’s Workers Trade Union Law, public sector workers may not create unions and workers may not strike against a long list of “vital and important facilities,” such as bakeries and “all means of transporting people and goods” as well as security installations. After the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions called for strikes during the 2011 political crisis, King Hamad amended the Trade Union Law to allow formation of a rival pro-government federation and to give authorities the power to decide which federation could engage in collective bargaining at the national level and represent Bahrain internationally.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bahrain is party, establishes the rights of all persons to freedom of association and participation in public affairs, allowing for only very narrow restrictions “necessary in a democratic society” to protect national security, public safety, public order, public health or morals, and the rights and freedoms of others. The restrictions in Bahrain’s laws clearly exceed what international law permits in this regard.

“The government claims that these groups have violated Bahraini laws, but it’s the government that is violating Bahrain’s international legal obligations with unjust laws and repressive policies,” Stork said.

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