(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities said on June 14, 2016, that they intend to dissolve Al Wifaq, the country’s main opposition group. On June 13, Bahrain authorities detained Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights activist on charges that relate solely to his peaceful criticism of the authorities.
The Bahrain News Agency reported, on June 14, that the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs had made a request to the judiciary to dissolve Al Wifaq and that the court had issued an “expedited” ruling to close its headquarters, seize its funds, and suspend its activities.
EXPAND Nabeel Rajab on the day of his release from detention on bail, on November 2, 2014 in Manama, Bahrain. A court is expected to rule on his case on January 20, 2015, and he could face up to 6 years in prison.
The report said that Al Wifaq provided “a nourishing environment for terrorism, extremism and violence.” The news agency said that Rajab is facing charges of “spreading false news… in an attempt to discredit Bahrain.” On June 14, a public prosecutor extended his detention for a week.
“Nobody should be under any illusion as to what Bahrain’s rulers are up to – nothing less than squeezing the life out of its peaceful opposition movement,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Bahrain’s allies in London, Washington, and elsewhere should publicly condemn these actions and let Bahrain know there will be consequences.”
On June 12, the authorities prevented a delegation of opposition figures from leaving Bahrain to attend the session of the UN Human Rights Council that began on June 13 in Geneva.
Bahrain prohibits political parties, and Al Wifaq is by far the largest of approximately 20 licensed political societies, including Islamist and secular, pro-government, and opposition.
The Bahrain News Agency statement said that Al Wifaq has “worked for decades on diverting from the concept of the state, [and to] secure legal cover for acts associated with extremism and terrorism.”
The authorities have produced no evidence to support their allegations. Al Wifaq was a leading signatory of a declaration of non-violence, issued in 2012 by Bahrain’s opposition groups, and regularly urges protesters to remain peaceful and condemns violence against the security forces.
On May 30, Bahrain’s First High Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction and more than doubled the prison sentence of Wifaq’s secretary general, Sheikh Ali Salman, from four years to nine years, despite an unfair trial and charges that clearly violated his right to free expression.
Rajab is already facing two outstanding charges. One is 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. The other is 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 133 carry a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison, and article 216 violations carry a sentence of up to three years.
Rajab had earlier been imprisoned from April 2 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.
In his opening statements at the 32nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 13, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, said in reference to Bahrain that, “Repression will not eliminate people’s grievances; it will increase them.” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid Al Khalifa, responded to Zeid’s comments on Twitter, saying: “We will not waste our time listening to the words of a high commissioner who has no strength or power.”
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees the right of citizens to participate in public affairs and to vote and run for public office in free elections. The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), the body of independent experts who review state compliance with the covenant, has determined that this article protects the right to “join organizations and associations concerned with political and public affairs,” and that “political parties and membership in parties play a significant role in the conduct of public affairs...”
On June 14, the US State Department issued a statement calling on the Bahraini authorities to reconsider the decision to dissolve Al Wifaq, and criticized the arrest of Rajab and the increased prison sentence for Sheikh Salman, which it said would “restrict freedom of expression.” In June 2015, however, the US resumed arms sales to Bahrain based on a seriously flawed assessment of Bahrain’s human rights situation.
The UK government has not publicly criticized the arrests or prosecution of Nabeel Rajab or Sheikh Ali Salman, nor has it called publicly for the release of any of Bahrain’s high-profile political detainees, many of whom have been serving life sentences since 2011 – although it makes public statements on behalf of human rights defenders in other countries around the world. In April 2016, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office said there had been “progress on human rights in Bahrain throughout 2015,” despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.
The Bahrain government should end its efforts to close down Al Wifaq, and reverse the decision to close the group’s headquarters and seize its funds, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also release Rajab.
“Bahrain’s once vibrant activist community is in danger of being wiped out and Bahrain’s friends in the UK government are failing to speak out against this dangerous and totally unjustified action,” Stork said.