(Beirut) – Bahrain stepped up its repression of activists and government critics during 2016, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2017. The government dissolved the main political opposition group and prosecuted leading human rights activists and Shia clerics.

Mourners shouting anti-government slogans during the funeral procession of Hassan Al Hayki, who was arrested in connection with a car bombing. Al Hayki died while in detention in Manama, August 2, 2016. 

The authorities also prevented numerous activists from leaving the country and deported six Bahrainis, including a human rights lawyer, after arbitrarily stripping them of their citizenship. This orchestrated crackdown on the rights to free expression, assembly, and association was a marked deterioration in the human rights situation and further undermined the prospects of a political solution to Bahrain’s domestic unrest.

“The Bahraini authorities have had their foot on the throat of Bahraini civil society for years, but in 2016 they indicated their intent to cut off its air supply altogether,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain’s long-term stability hinges on a process of political reform with greater respect for basic human rights at its core, but sadly it is going in the other direction.”

In the 687-page World Report, its 27th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that a new generation of authoritarian populists seeks to overturn the concept of human rights protections, treating rights as an impediment to the majority will. For those who feel left behind by the global economy and increasingly fear violent crime, civil society groups, the media, and the public have key roles to play in reaffirming the values on which rights-respecting democracy has been built.

In November 2016, authorities charged Ebrahim Sharif, a prominent political activist, with “inciting hatred of the political system” after he criticized Bahrain’s government and a state visit to Bahrain by Britain’s Prince Charles. Nabeel Rajab has been in detention since June, facing 15 years in prison on charges that include criticism of Bahrain’s participation in the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen. Zainab al-Khawaja, another activist, was detained for three months in March on the basis of four convictions that violated her right to free expression, one of which resulted from an unfair trial. She left Bahrain for Denmark, where she also has citizenship, after her release.

In May, Bahrain’s High Court of Appeal more than doubled the prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary-general of al-Wifaq, the country’s main opposition group, to nine years, despite a trial court’s decision to acquit him of advocating the overthrow of the government by force and strong evidence his initial trial was unfair.

In June, a Bahraini court ordered al-Wifaq to close its headquarters and suspend its activities, and confiscated its funds. Authorities arbitrarily stripped al-Wifaq’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Isa Qasim, of his citizenship in June. In response to a protest over that action, the authorities opened a campaign of harassment against Shia clerics.

The third annual report from the interior ministry ombudsman, released in June, provided further evidence that the authorities have made little progress in holding police and security forces accountable for the torture and mistreatment of detainees during 2011 protests against the government.

The authorities have placed arbitrary travel bans on dozens of people who have criticized human rights abuses. They include Nedal al-Salman, of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who was barred from attending a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in September 2016.

The Bahraini authorities should reinvigorate a stalled process of political reform by reversing the dissolution of al-Wifaq, releasing high-profile political detainees, and ending its harassment of activists, Human Rights Watch said.