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Bahraini appeals court confirms dissolution of Wa'ad, last major opposition group

Bahraini anti-government protesters march in the northern village of Abu Saiba, Bahrain, 8 August 2014. The posters show jailed Wa'ad Society leader Ebrahim Sharif, calling for his freedom
Bahraini anti-government protesters march in the northern village of Abu Saiba, Bahrain, 8 August 2014. The posters show jailed Wa'ad Society leader Ebrahim Sharif, calling for his freedom

AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

This statement was originally published on adhrb.org on 26 October 2017.

Bahrain's High Court of Appeals has today confirmed the asset seizure and dissolution of Wa'ad (also known as the National Democratic Action Society), the country's largest secular, leftist opposition group. Wa'ad was the last major opposition group officially operating in Bahrain following the July 2016 dissolution of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) reiterates its total condemnation of the arbitrary decision to dissolve Wa'ad and calls on the Government of Bahrain to immediately end its attack on peaceful political opposition.

The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJ) launched dissolution proceedings against Wa'ad on 6 March 2017, citing unsubstantiated allegations of "incitement of acts of terrorism and promoting violent and forceful overthrow of the political regime" after the society issued a statement describing Bahrain as experiencing a "constitutional political crisis." The MOJ's accusations also concerned Wa'ad's "support with the Al-Wefaq" and its alleged description of the three individuals executed by the government in January 2017 - who were tortured into providing false confessions - as "martyrs." On 31 May 2017, a lower court accepted the MOJ's accusations and ruled to dissolve Wa'ad and seize its assets. Wa'ad appealed the decision, but it was today confirmed. According to state media, the ruling was partially based on the argument that the "society cannot claim to exercise its freedom of expression" because it reportedly fails "to recognize the constitution." The society's assets are now to be liquidated and "deposited into the State's Treasury."

The government took similar action against Bahrain's largest political group, Al-Wefaq, on 14 June 2016, when a Bahraini court approved the society's suspension within hours of receiving a request from the MOJ. Authorities immediately enforced the order, freezing the group's assets, blocking its website, and closing its headquarters. On 17 July 2016, after the judiciary expedited the legal proceedings, Bahrain's High Civil Court affirmed the order and formally dissolved Al-Wefaq. The second High Civil Court of Appeals upheld the dissolution on 22 September. Al-Wefaq's Secretary-General, Sheikh Ali Salman, is currently serving a four-year prison sentence stemming from a political speech he delivered.

The government dissolved another opposition political group, Amal, in 2012, and it is currently incarcerating Fadhel Abbas, the leader of the smaller leftist society Al-Wahdawi, on charges related to tweets.

This is also not the first time that Bahraini authorities have targeted Wa'ad and its members. The society's headquarters was twice attacked and it has repeatedly faced suspension or threats thereof. Bahraini authorities have continuously subjected its former secretary-general, Ebrahim Sharif, to various forms of judicial harassment. On 20 March 2017, officials charged Sharif with "inciting hatred against the regime" and against "factions of society" under articles 165 and 172 of Bahrain's penal code for messages he wrote on social media. Sharif was previously imprisoned from 2011 to 2015, and then again from 2015 to 2016 on similar charges stemming from his involvement in the pro-democracy movement and speeches he delivered. He could now face up to three more years in prison. Other Wa'ad leaders, including Sharif's wife Farida Ghulam and former secretary-general Radhi al-Mosawi, have also faced regular judicial harassment, including recent arbitrary travel bans.

"Bahrain's authorities have launched the worst crackdown on civil and political society since 2011, and today's ruling is an official sign that the government has no intention of changing course," said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. "Ahead of the elections for the lower house of Bahrain's rubberstamp parliament expected in 2018, the government is clearly trying to wipe the slate clean of any formal opposition. The international community, and key allies like the US, have specifically urged Bahrain to open the political space for real opposition engagement - they need to match rhetoric with actual pressure for reform, or the coming election will be even more of a farce held up by the authorities as 'progress.' Formal opposition groups, independent media, and other means of voicing peaceful criticism are essential to the country's stability - and the authorities have all but obliterated these institutions in Bahrain."

With today's ruling approving the dissolution of Wa'ad, the Government of Bahrain has confirmed its intention to close all space for formal political opposition. ADHRB calls on the Government of Bahrain to immediately reinstate dissolved opposition groups including Wa'ad and Al-Wefaq, unconditionally release all political prisoners, and lift all restrictions on free expression, association, and assembly.

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