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Bahrain: No Free Elections in Current Environment

Allies Should Insist on Reforms, Release of Political Prisoners

Protesters hold photos of Sheikh Ali Salman, Bahrain's main opposition leader and Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, as they march asking for his release in the village of Jidhafs, west of Manama, in Bahrain on June 16, 2015.   © 2015 Reuters

(Beirut) – The upcoming parliamentary elections in Bahrain, scheduled for November 24, 2018, are occurring in a repressive political environment that is not conducive to free elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Bahrain’s allies should encourage the Bahraini government to take all the necessary steps to reform laws undermining freedom of expression and assembly and to release detained opposition figures.

In the latest instance of the crackdown on peaceful dissent, on November 13, 2018, a former member of parliament, Ali Rashed al-Sheeri, was detained after he tweeted about boycotting the elections. On November 4, the Bahrain High Court of Appeals overturned the previous acquittal of a prominent opposition member, Sheikh Ali Salman, sentencing him to life in prison on charges of spying for Qatar. Salman is the leader of Bahrain’s largest political opposition group, al-Wefaq, which was outlawed in 2016.

“By jailing or silencing people who challenge the ruling family and banning all opposition parties and independent news outlets, Bahrain is failing to create the conditions necessary for a free election,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain should immediately release political prisoners and review its decisions to shutter independent news outlets and political opposition groups.”

Since the nationwide anti-government protests in 2011, Bahraini authorities have arrested scores of prominent human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and opposition leaders, charging them on dubious terrorism or national security grounds, mostly for peaceful acts of protest. Security forces have been responsible for torture and widespread ill treatment of detainees and have dispersed peaceful protests with deadly force. The government has also dissolved all opposition political groups, including the secular-left National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad) and the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. In 2017, the last independent newspaper in the country, al-Wasat, was forcibly closed.

On June 11, King Hamad signed an amendment to the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights that bans anyone who belonged to a dissolved political organization or who was previously convicted and sentenced to more than six months in prison from running for political office. This legislation effectively disqualifies opposition candidates from participating in the upcoming elections.

Legislators from the United Kingdom, United States, and the European Parliament have already released letters highlighting the current repressive climate in Bahrain and its impact on the elections. The Bahraini government rejected the criticism and insisted that “this year’s elections…will build on the success of 2014 and result in a parliament that is representative of the diverse range of views that exists across Bahraini society.”
There are significant human rights concerns in both Bahrain’s behavior domestically and given its participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is committing serious violations of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said. The coalition has failed to credibly investigate potential war crimes, and coalition members, including Bahrain, have provided insufficient or no information about their role in alleged unlawful attacks.

On November 15, the US Senate voted not to block a $300 million arms sale to Bahrain. Although 20 percent of the Senate, with members from both sides of the aisle, voted to block the sale, the arms sale is set to go through.

Bahrain’s allies, including the UK and US, should translate their criticism of Bahrain’s human rights abuses into concrete action, including by not approving future arms sales until such time as Bahrain releases all human rights defenders and dissidents serving long jail terms for peaceful expression and holds accountable officials and security officers who participated in or ordered the widespread torture during interrogations since 2011.

Bahrain’s allies should stop supplying weapons to Bahrain and other parties to the conflict in Yemen, while there is a substantial risk of these arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law there.

Bahrain should repeal the amendments to the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights and allow opposition candidates to run for office in the elections. The government should free anyone detained arbitrarily, including those detained for exercising their basic rights, such as Sheikh Ali Salman and Nabeel Rajab, and reinstate dissolved independent media outlets and political opposition groups.

“Bahrain’s allies should not give Bahrain a free pass and conduct business as usual while mass rights abuses persist,” Fakih said.

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