(Beirut) – The Bahrain parliament’s call at an extraordinary meeting on July 28, 2013, to impose a series of emergency measures will severely restrict basic rights. The action would give the authorities excessive powers to act arbitrarily to restrict such rights as freedom of assembly and speech.
Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa said the meeting was convened “to toughen legal penalties with respect to the protection of community from terrorism acts.” On July 29, King Hamad instructed the prime minister to codify the recommendations into law as soon as possible. Antigovernment groups told Human Rights Watch that the government is exaggerating the threat of terrorist activity to justify a renewed crackdown in advance of protest demonstrations set for August 14.
“Bahrain has spent the last two years cracking down on peaceful protest, violating people’s rights from start to finish,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Now it’s planning a whole new set of draconian restrictions, effectively creating a new state of emergency, even while peaceful protesters from the last round are sitting in prison with long sentences.”
The parliament specifically set out 22 recommendations calling for new restrictions on freedom of expression, and an indefinite ban on all public gatherings in the capital, Manama. It also called for the authorities to revoke the citizenship of Bahrainis who have been convicted of terrorist offenses, and proposed declaring a “state of national safety” in order “to impose civic security and peace.”
Bahrain’s government previously declared a National Safety Law on March 15, 2011, one month after large scale antigovernment protests began on February 14. The emergency law provided for the institution of national safety courts, which Human Rights Watch found repeatedly failed to respect and protect basic fair trial rights. The National Safety Law also granted wide ranging authority to the commander-in-chief of the Bahrain Defense Force to issue regulations governing all manner of conduct and to enforce those regulations as well as existing laws. The emergency law ended on June 1, 2011.
The parliament’s “Recommendation 2” called for the authorities to revoke the citizenship “of those who carry out terrorist crimes and their instigators,” raising the prospect that Bahrainis opposed to the government will be arbitrarily deprived of their citizenship rights after unfair trials on terrorism charges.
The parliament’s recommendations, when codified into law, will suspend the right to free assembly indefinitely in Manama and may severely curtail free speech. “Recommendation 6” calls for the prohibition of all “sit-ins, rallies, and gatherings in the capital, Manama.” “Recommendation 16,” although vaguely worded, says that government measures should affect “basic liberties, particularly freedom of opinion, […] so as to strike a balance between law enforcement and human rights protection.”
“The parallels with the 2011 protests and the government’s heavy-handed response then are of the utmost concern,” Houry said. “Clamping down further on people who have legitimate grievances will only fuel discontent and escalate an already tense situation.”
Fifty people are currently on trial accused of “illegally establishing and managing” the 14th February Group – an informal loose-knit group whom authorities have linked to acts of violence – andof “engaging in violence against the persons and assets of state security” or “participation” in the group.
Thirteen of the 50 are in custody. According to court documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, the others have either left the country or have not been apprehended. The documents say that nine of the 13 have either “confessed” to charges or “confirmed” allegations put to them in police questioning during their pretrial detention.
They include Naji Fateel, the alleged leader and founder of the 14th February Group. Fateel alleges that police tortured him in detention following his arrest on May 2, 2013, and that he signed a “confession” rather than endure further torture.
In July 2008, a Bahrain court convicted him of destroying police property and stealing a weapon after a trial that Human Rights Watch found was “tainted with abuse.” He was sentenced to five years in prison, though he was released after nine months.
On July 23, 2013, local media reported that another of the defendants, Ali Mohammed Ashoor, belongs to “an extremist group” known as the al-Ashtar Brigades that allegedly claimed responsibility for planting a car bomb that exploded near a Sunni mosque in the suburb of Riffa on July 17. No one was killed or injured in the explosion.
Revoking citizenship on the basis of unfair trial convictions would violate the rights of Bahraini nationals under international law. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered reflective of customary international law, states that, “Everyone has the right to a nationality,” and, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” Unlawful deportations would also violate other rights, such as the right not to be subjected to arbitrary interference with family life under article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a party.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 2006, permits some restrictions on certain rights during an officially proclaimed public emergency that “threatens the life of the nation.” It requires countries to publicly declare a state of emergency and to ensure that any suspensions or limitations of rights are temporary and strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. Although Bahrain has faced sustained domestic unrest, it is questionable whether this amounts to an emergency threatening the life of the nation, Human Rights Watch said.
It also appears that the measures approved by the parliament are neither appropriate nor proportionate, particularly as they would appear to virtually end any opportunity to exercise the right to peaceful assembly. Moreover, recent history suggests that any declaration of a National Safety Law will open the way for a new government crackdown in which citizens who oppose the government will face severe penalties for exercising their rights to free assembly and expression.
The national safety courts created under the 2011 law flouted basic requirements of international human rights law, as well as many provisions of Bahraini criminal law. As Human Rights Watch documented, the courts demonstrated a lack of competence, impartiality, and independence, and they served primarily as a vehicle to convict defendants of alleged crimes stemming from the exercise of fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
Under international law, countries may not invoke a public emergency to permit arbitrary deprivations of liberty or unacknowledged detentions, nor may they deviate from fundamental principles of fair trial, including the presumption of innocence. People held as administrative detainees under a lawful state of emergency should, at a minimum, have the right to be brought before a judicial authority promptly after arrest, be informed of the reasons for detention, and have immediate access to legal counsel and family. They also should be allowed to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in a fair hearing, and to seek a remedy for mistreatment and arbitrary detention. Certain fundamental rights – such as the right to life, the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment – must always be respected, even during a public emergency.
“The government has talked a lot about the need for national reconciliation but, once again, its actions in taking on a raft of stern new measures to suppress legitimate protest are undermining any prospects for successful dialogue,” Houry said.