The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) expresses grave concern about the continued crackdown on the right to freedom of expression by Bahrain's authorities. King Hamad Al-Khalifa, Head of the Executive, the Judiciary and the Government of Bahrain, issued an amendment to the 1976 Penal Code's article 214 on 4 February 2014 stating:
"A punishment of imprisonment for a period of no less than one year and no more than seven years and a fine of no less than BD1,000 [$US 2650] and no more than BD10,000 [$US 26,524] will be inflicted upon any person who offends in public the Monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag or the national emblem." It is not specified within the language of the law what constitutes an offence, and by leaving it vague it allows space to criminalize any form of criticism of the king.
BCHR recently released a report about civilians targeted due to practicing their right to freedom of expression by criticizing the king of Bahrain, and were charged with "insulting the king". BCHR has documented around 30 cases in 2013 alone wherein people were charged, tried or detained for “insulting the king” during public speeches, in online posts or through other forms of peaceful expression. At least nine were sentenced to one year's imprisonment, more than ten are awaiting trial and at least two including a journalist are currently on trial.
The new amendment allows the already problematic judiciary, which is not independent nor fair, to sentence civilians to a maximum of seven years in prison for practicing their right to free expression.
This new amendment to article 214 of the penal code violates people's basic rights as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and conventions that Bahrain is signatory to. Article 19 of the UDHR states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
BCHR believes this latest step comes as an escalation to the ongoing crackdown against freedom of speech, and as a result, to the increase of civilians criticizing and mocking the King of Bahrain due to the continuous use of excessive force.
Head of the Government and Supreme Commander of the Bahrain Defense Force Hamad Al-Khalifa is placing himself outside the limits of criticism by issuing this amendment. By making himself the head of all governments during his unilateral change to the constitution in 2002, and as head of the ruling monarchy in Bahrain, he has placed himself in a position for public criticism.
Based on the above, BCHR calls on the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Nations and all other allies and relevant international institutions to pressure the government of Bahrain to:
- Immediately repeal the new amendment to article 214, and all other laws that infringe on people’s basic rights as guaranteed by the UDHR;
- Abolish the Penal Code that allows for numerous human rights violations against people’s civil and human rights;
- Reform the judiciary so that it abides by international standards of due process and fair trial;
- Hold all those who issue and implement abusive laws against civilians in Bahrain accountable, especially those in high positions;
- Immediately allow space for the people of Bahrain to practice their right to free expressions, as well as freedom of assembly and association without fear of retribution.