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Bahrain's National Assembly cracks down on expression ahead of mass protest

On 28 July 2013, the National Assembly of Bahrain met for a special session where they passed numerous recommendations to stifle freedom of assembly
On 28 July 2013, the National Assembly of Bahrain met for a special session where they passed numerous recommendations to stifle freedom of assembly

Bahrain Center for Human Rights

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) condemns the ongoing and escalating harassment campaign by the government of Bahrain against the right of the opposition and individuals to express their opinion and to claim their right to self-determination. Even more concerning is the use of the National Assembly, which is supposed to be representative of the people, in demanding the activation of laws which violate the basic rights of citizens in Bahrain.

On Sunday 28 July 2013, a special session of the National Assembly was held at the request of the president of the House of Representatives, Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Dhahrani. Members of the National Assembly - which consists of members of the Shoura (Higher) Council and Representatives - supported the request to hold a special session to discuss toughening punishments under Law No. 58 of 2006 with respect to the protection of the community from terrorist acts. In response to the request, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, granted them permission to hold the session.

It is important to note here that there was a debate over the issue of holding a special session of the National Assembly as this was not consistent with the constitution of Bahrain in essence. Lawyer Abdulla AlShamlawi stated in an article that the special session of the National Assembly was not constitutional, and added, "The constitutional provision which authorized the call for a session talked about the role of each of the Shoura (Higher) Council and Representatives separately, and there is no constitutional provision which authorizes the invitation for the National Assembly with its two chambers."

In Bahrain, the elected parliament, which does not hold legislative or monitoring powers, holds 40 seats. The Higher Council, which also consists of 40 seats, is completely assigned by the King.

The special session, which lasted over three hours, made several recommendations which were issued in what seemed to be an already prepared statement and which was agreed upon and released within 20 minutes of the decision-making process. The recommendations included explicit calls for a further crackdown on political activities and the right to freedom of expression, as it has recommended disallowing all marches and sit-ins and gatherings in the capital Manama in direct violation of the right to peaceful assembly of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates: "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association." Bahraini authorities have persistently attempted to prevent protests and gatherings in the capital, suppressing demonstrations through the use of excessive force.

The assembly also recommended legal procedures against those who use social media "illegally" as mentioned in the statement, and the punishment of anyone who uses these sites "to promote false information to third parties," which represents a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek information and ideas, receive and impart any media and regardless of frontiers." This comes after an extensive campaign to target those who use the internet as a means of free expression or to criticize the government; several people are in prison today for tweeting. This call for a harsher crackdown will be used to further target activists who are using social media to expose the widespread ongoing human rights violations in Bahrain and to express their views and opinions.

Furthermore, the recommendations included giving further abilities to the executive authorities and the security apparatus; including the unconstitutional legislation to impose a state of National Safety (state of emergency). The assembly waived its legislative role giving the executive authorities the right to pass any decrees and laws to toughen punishments under the internationally criticized terrorism law, to implement the recommendations, and other procedures for the maintenance of security which suggests that more repressive laws will be passed.

Click here for the full list of recommendations.

These recommendations were raised to the ruler of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who quickly issued a statement calling for the speedy implementation of the recommendations that emerged from the special National Assembly session. The Crown Prince and the Prime Minister both publicly endorsed the recommendations and called for their implementation.

The legislators did not make any effort or reference either at this meeting or earlier to address the fundamental problems within the Terrorism Law which has been criticized internationally because of egregious violations of fundamental human rights. According to UN experts:

- the definition of terrorism is overly broad since there is no requirement of specific aim to commit a terrorist act and some acts are deemed to be "terrorist" without the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury - thus this definition goes against several human rights instruments;
- restrictions on freedom of association and assembly would allow the criminalization of peaceful demonstrations by civil society;
- excessive limitations are being placed on freedom of speech due to the use of broad and vague terms regarding the offence of incitement to terrorism since there is not a clear threshold for criminalization established;
- rights to due process would be denied because of the excessive powers of the Public Prosecutor regarding detention without judicial review.

In addition, the law empowers the courts to impose the death penalty and fails to provide essential procedural safeguards for people facing a possible death sentence.

The Terrorism Act has been used since its release as a tool against political activists, human rights defenders, as well as to suppress peaceful protest movements, which began to escalate in recent years and which call for civil rights, democracy and the right to self-determination. Despite of the clarifications issued by the authorities that the bill, which was issued ​​by the government to the House of Representatives, is aimed at addressing terrorism coming from abroad, it has become apparent that after the adoption of the law this has not been the purpose. In April 2013, two children received 10 years' prison sentences on charges of allegedly participating in burning an armored after their trial under the Terrorism Act. The BCHR documented that their confessions were taken under duress. The BCHR has also documented that the evidence used against those charged under the terrorism law was almost, if not always, based on confessions extracted under torture.

The participants at the special session considered the approval of the ruler of the country to hold this extraordinary session as a response to the desire of the people's will, while it is noteworthy that the current parliament witnessed in February 2011 the withdrawal of 18 deputies belonging to the Wefaq parliamentary bloc, representing 60% of citizens (according to the polls). This was a permanent withdrawal in protest of the government's violent and unjustified use of excessive force and extrajudicial killings in an attempt to end peaceful protests staged by at certain points more than 50% of the citizens of Bahrain at the Pearl roundabout. The members of parliament who withdrew were later replaced through a supplementary election which was boycotted by the opposition.

It is ironic that the meeting included calls to law enforcement regarding sanctions for inciting violence, especially actions that target igniting a sectarian crisis in Bahrain as they claimed, while the extraordinary session included insults and lobbying against the Shia community. One of the representatives referred to Shias as "dogs", and some participants demanded in the session strict security measures against Shia opposition leaders in a clear retaliation for their peaceful public work.

Two of the representatives - Ali AlAsfoor and Khaled Abdulaal - withdrew from the session in protest at what took place during the discussions. Before the withdrawal, Khalid Abdulaal gave a speech about the grave and widespread human rights violations that are ongoing, and referred to how the Prime Minister was correct in saying that the ruling family and their security agencies are above the law.

The Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated through its account on the social media website Twitter its intention to develop deterrent laws in addition to the social, educational and awareness efforts to stop violence. Yet at the same time MOI personnel continue to commit repeated violations, including but not limited to hundreds of house raids and arbitrary arrests in just the past couple of weeks. This is in addition to carrying out collective punishment in the form of using excessive teargas in residential areas and the use of the pellet shotgun (both of which have resulted in extrajudicial killings) to prevent peaceful gatherings in areas which witness protests on a daily basis.

BCHR regards the approval of the country's ruler Hamad bin Isa for the extraordinary session of the National Assembly as a green light to all state agencies to further escalate the crackdown against the opposition and those who continue to protest for rights and self-determination.

Mariam AlKhawaja, Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, commented: "At a time when the authorities continuously talk about empty promises of reform, the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. Today's special session was not about introducing new punishments; these measures have been put in practice previously. It was about presenting these measures under a new title and face. The authorities have been attempting to create fear since the announcement of planned protests on August 14th under the Tamarod campaign; and this appears to be a part of it. The further deterioration to the human rights situation is directly linked to the international impunity the Bahraini authorities enjoy; and the lack of real pressure from their allies, namely the United States and the United Kingdom, to put an end to the ongoing widespread violations.”

Based on the above, BCHR calls for the following:

  • An immediate end to the targeting of the opposition and restriction of peaceful political activities.
  • The immediate cancellation of the recommendations of the special session of the Assembly, an end to the ongoing human rights violations, and the initiation of real reforms.
  • An end to the culture of impunity practiced at the highest levels of government, and accountability for those who have committed, ordered, or allowed human rights violations to occur; especially those in high positions.
  • For the government to revoke the Terrorism Law, and drop all trumped up charges against those tried under this law.
  • An immediate end to the political trials under the Terrorism Law which do not constitute the basic conditions of a fair trial because of the conflict in the terrorism laws and penalties with international standards of a fair trial, and the lack of independence and impartiality of the judiciary in Bahrain.
  • Reparations and compensation for all victims of torture; as well as rehabilitation.
  • Accountability for those who incite sectarianism and violence against certain sects, including members of the ruling family.
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