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(Beirut) – Bahrain should immediately drop charges against two prominent opposition members for meeting with a US diplomat on July 6, 2014. Bahrain should repeal the law that bars leaders of political societies from meeting with foreign diplomats without government permission.

On July 10, Bahrain’s public prosecutor brought charges against Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Bahrain’s main Shiite opposition party Al Wifaq, and Khalil al-Marzooq, the party’s deputy leader. They were charged with violating Bahrain’s law on political associations by meeting with the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, without government permission. On July 7, Bahraini authorities declared Malinowski persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country.

“Bahrain basically told the US that the human rights situation in the country is none of its business,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “It also sent a message to the rest of the world that anyone who wants to properly engage on rights issues will be persona non grata. This aggressive tactic demands a response. It’s time for the US and others to flex a little muscle of their own.”

Concerned countries should urge Bahrain to drop charges against the Al Wifaq leaders and stop harassing them, Human Rights Watch said. The United States should also consider recalling its ambassador for consultations until Malinowski’s persona non grata status is reversed and the related charges against the Al Wifaq leaders are dropped.

On July 6, Al Wifaq hosted Malinowski at a Ramadan reception in Manama. Al-Marzooq told Human Rights Watch that Malinowski had urged Al Wifaq in their meeting to participate in October elections and to re-engage with a stalled process of national dialogue.

The next day, Bahrain’s state news agency confirmed that the Foreign Affairs Ministry had declared that Malinowski was “unwelcome and should immediately leave the country, due to his interference in its internal affairs.” The ministry said that his meeting with Al Wifaq was “contrary to diplomatic norms and relations between states.”

On July 8, Salman and al-Marzooq received summonses to appear for questioning at Bahrain’s Criminal Investigation Directorate on July 9. On July 10, the public prosecutor further interrogated both men and charged them with violating the 2005 Law for Political Societies. Al-Marzooq told Human Rights Watch that most of the questions focused on what was said at the meeting with Malinowski.

In September 2013, Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa announced an amendment to the 2005 law to require political groups to secure advance government permission before meeting with foreign diplomats in Bahrain and abroad and to be accompanied by a Foreign Ministry representative in such meetings. On September 19, 2013, a US State Department spokesperson called on Bahrain to rescind the change to the law.

Al-Marzooq told Human Rights Watch that Al Wifaq does not recognize the legitimacy of the restriction and that its leaders have met with many foreign diplomats without incident since it became law, including a May 2014 meeting with another senior US diplomat, Anne Patterson.

On July 10 three days after Malinowski’s ouster, the US State Department announced it had issued a formal complaint with the Bahraini embassy in Washington.

 “Bahrain has been harassing, prosecuting, and jailing its peaceful opposition for years and ignoring any polite complaints from its allies,” Margon said. “The US and every other country that cares about human rights should ratchet up the pressure on Bahrain to stop the campaign against its human rights defenders and political activists”

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