Bahrain’s Proposed Blasphemy Law: Another Tool to Silence Regime’s Critics

Bahrain is considering a new blasphemy law, which will likely be used to harass and silence the regime’s critics. Cleric Sheikh Maytham Al Salman, head of the religious freedom unit at Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, expressed fear that it would be wielded to restrict freedom of expression.

Human rights defenders and opposition leaders, who already live under threat of frivolous prosecutions, may become even more vulnerable. Politically motivated accusations of blasphemy tend to lead to sham trials, lengthy prison sentences, and the risk of torture and abuse in detention.

Bahrain’s proposal would criminalize “contempt of religions, such as insulting divinity, defaming divine books, prophets, Allah’s Messengers, as well as their wives or companions.” It would also criminalize “any hate or sectarian discourse that undermines national unity, differentiates between individuals or groups on the bases of religion, creed or sect and triggers conflict between individuals or groups.” On August 31, Bahrain’s cabinet discussed the draft law and referred it for further study.

Blasphemy laws often appear to adhere to human rights norms at first glance, but in fact these laws open the door to abuses. Rather than safeguarding public order, they can restrict public discourse. They have a chilling effect on the peaceful expression of political or religious views, by creating an ever-present threat of prosecution. They stifle debate of views which some segments of the population may find offensive, and increase the likelihood of mob justice and due process violations. Blasphemy laws tend to be used selectively, and authoritarian rulers often exploit them for political gain.

Many other states use blasphemy laws to restrict free speech. Pakistani Christian farmworker Asia Bibi, accused of blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad, has languished in prison for more than five years despite international pressure. Her death sentence was only recently suspended. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have also been used as a weapon to settle private disputes, and mobs often take the law into their own hands. Blasphemy allegations against bloggers in Bangladesh have led to gruesome extra-judicial killings. In Saudi Arabia, a blogger was held without trial for 20 months for tweets that enraged conservatives. Saudi journalists, writers, and artists live under constant fear of prosecution. Other prominent states with strict blasphemy laws include Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Tunisia, Indonesia, and Russia.

This latest proposed legislation is another example of the deteriorating human rights situation in Bahrain since June, when the U.S. government lifted its ban on security assistance to Bahrain. The Obama Administration claimed that Bahrain “has made some meaningful progress” on human rights reforms and reconciliation. Yet as Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Jim McGovern observed in a recent op-ed, “the regime’s campaign to harass, intimidate and bludgeon activists continues unabated.” Their bipartisan legislation—S. 2009 and H.R. 3445—would reinstate a ban on the transfer of small arms to Bahrain.

If Bahrain’s blasphemy bill moves forward, it should be aligned with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of expression, the Rabat Plan of Action to counter the incitement of hatred, the Camden Principles on freedom of expression and equality, and Resolution 16/18 of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The Bahraini government should allow the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and freedom of religion to visit and monitor the situation. It should also explore other avenues to address concerns about religious hatred and incitement to violence. As it is currently framed, the draft law leaves too much room for abuse.

This blasphemy proposal, if enacted, would add a new tool to Bahrain’s arsenal for stifling human rights defenders and opposition leaders. The U.S. government should call on Bahrain to refrain from enacting this law.


Published on September 16, 2015


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