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Elections go off amid unprecedented crackdown

(L-R) BCHR board member Mohamed Said and bloggers Ali Abdulemam and Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace
(L-R) BCHR board member Mohamed Said and bloggers Ali Abdulemam and Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace


Thousands of Bahraini voters went to the polls last weekend in parliamentary and municipal elections amid concerns about voting irregularities and an ongoing security crackdown on Shiite opposition figures and bloggers, report the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and Human Rights Watch. Trials for the detained activists are set to begin this week.

According to news reports, the local Transparency Bahrain group reported a case of an estimated 1,000 voters who allegedly were barred from casting ballots because their names had disappeared from the original voter registry. Also, Transparency Bahrain noted riot police were deployed in villages before and during voting, especially in places where opposition candidates were running. Despite the crackdown, Shiites made modest gains in the election.

And these are only the reports we have heard of. Election monitors were never really given a chance, say ANHRI and BCHR. The authorities refused international monitoring offers, and dissolved the board of the Bahraini Association for Human Rights, the only independent local human rights group that was authorised to monitor elections. In the board's place, the government appointed a ministry official.

The Information Affairs Authority has also blocked websites affiliated with legal opposition societies participating in the elections and has shut down the newsletters of the two main opposition societies, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and the National Democratic Action Society (al-Wa'ad). The websites of BCHR and ANHRI continue to be blocked.

BCHR reports that the government also pressured local organisations not to receive media monitors organised by the Arab Working Group for Media Monitoring (AWG) and coordinated by International Media Support (IMS). The pro-government press and the government-controlled Journalists' Society have alleged that AWG is a secret cell working for foreign institutes. According to BHCR, AWG was instrumental in monitoring the 2006 elections, revealing the many failures around freedom of information that seem to be repeated this time round.

Meanwhile, 23 opposition activists will go on trial on terrorism charges on 28 October, including bloggers Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace and Ali Abdulemam, and BCHR board member Mohamed Said, report ANHRI, BCHR and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Most of the specific charges relate to their political opinions and writings, including "spreading false information" and "inciting hatred of the government." They have not been permitted to meet privately with lawyers, and many allege they have been subjected to torture during interrogation.

They join hundreds of Bahraini political activists, human rights defenders and Shiite religious figures who have been arrested in recent months. The exact number of arrests throughout August and September appears to be between 250 and 300, says Human Rights Watch.

ANHRI says there is a possibility that the crackdown was intended to keep the activists away from the elections so they would not expose the violations of the Bahraini government. Several of the prominent detainees are members of opposition groups that the government considers illegal and that advocated boycotting the elections.

"What we are seeing in Bahrain these days is a return to full-blown authoritarianism. The government has taken over associations and shut down media it doesn't like to silence the loudest critics and intimidate the rest, and Washington says nothing publicly," said Human Rights Watch, urging the Obama administration to speak out publicly about violations in Bahrain, a close ally.

Bahrain was ranked 144th out of 178 countries in RSF's 2010 press freedom index, falling 25 places in a single year. The fall was due to the increase in arrests of bloggers and netizens and the increase in online censorship, RSF says.

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