(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should reverse their decision to arbitrarily strip the citizenship of a senior cleric. They should also immediately release a prominent rights activist jailed on June 13, on charges that clearly violate freedom of expression.
In a Bahrain News Agency statement on June 20, 2016, the Interior Ministry said it was revoking the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qasim, considered the spiritual leader of the main opposition group, Al Wifaq. It accused him of “creating an extremist sectarian environment” and saying he had “encouraged sectarianism and violence.”
“Bahrain’s government and ruling family are slamming shut the door on political reform, while simultaneously stoking dissent,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Bahrain’s allies in Washington and London should be unequivocal and public in their condemnation and make it clear that these provocations will have an impact on military assistance and strategic relations.”
On June 21, a public prosecutor extended the detention of Nabeel Rajab, the rights activist, for eight days. He faces charges of “spreading false news…in a bid to discredit Bahrain” under article 134 of the penal code. The authorities have not made clear what comments form the basis for the charges.
On June 14, Bahraini authorities issued an “expedited” ruling to close Al Wifaq’s headquarters, seize its funds, and suspend its activities. The authorities have produced no evidence to support their allegations against Sheikh Qasim, nor have they produced evidence to support the decision to dissolve Al Wifaq, which was a leading signatory of a declaration of non-violence, issued in 2012 by Bahrain’s opposition groups. The group’s leaders regularly urge protesters to remain peaceful and condemn violent attacks against security forces.
A vaguely-worded 2014 amendment to article 10 of the Bahraini citizenship law of 1963 allows the Interior Ministry to revoke citizenship from any person who “caused harm to the interests of the Kingdom or behaved in a way inimical with the duty of loyalty to it.” In December 2015, Bahrain’s courts effectively granted the Interior Ministry full discretion to revoke the citizenship of any Bahraini, stating that “it is established that the decision to revoke citizenship may be proved by any incident or evidence without a requirement for a specific means of proof.”
Rajab is a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory committee. His family told Human Rights Watch that his jailors are keeping him in solitary confinement in Riffa police station in an unsanitary prison cell that is affecting his health and well-being.
“The authorities clearly intend to punish Nabeel Rajab by isolating him as if he were a dangerous criminal, and in degrading conditions,” Stork said.
Rajab could also face two outstanding charges: one for “offending national institutions,” under article 216 of Bahrain’s penal code, based on his social media comments in March 2015, about the alleged torture of detainees in Jaw Prison; and the other for allegedly “disseminating false rumors in times of war,” under article 133, based on his social media posts criticizing air strikes in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, which includes Bahrain.
Violations of article 134 carry a minimum sentence of three months in prison; violations of article 133 carry a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison; and article 216 violations carry a sentence of up to three years. All of these charges manifestly violate Rajab’s right to freedom of expression, and Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.
Rajab had earlier been imprisoned from April 2, 2014, to July 13, 2014, on charges of “offending national institutions,” which related to his criticism of the government on social media. A public prosecutor imposed a travel ban on Rajab on the day King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa pardoned him.
Since the beginning of 2015, authorities have stripped more than 200 Bahrainis of their citizenship, leaving many of them stateless. They include more than 30 human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, doctors, and religious scholars, as well as people convicted of terrorism and others who have fought for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Article 29 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, states that “Every person has the right to a nationality, and no citizen shall be deprived of his nationality without a legally valid reason.”
“It will not be difficult for historians to pinpoint the escalation of abuses that marked the end of Bahrain’s claim that it has any regard for fundamental rights,” Stork said.