Protest Ban Fuels Concerns About Bahrain’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression
Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First today voiced concern about escalating efforts to silence dissent in Bahrain, where the Kingdom’s Ministry of the Interior has announced an end to “all rallies and gatherings.” The announcement came on the heels of Bahrain’s decision to charge four men with the crime of “insulting his majesty the king on their personal accounts on Twitter.” “The protests won’t go away just because the authorities ban them. This is another blow to those looking for a peaceful way to criticize the government, and will likely lead to more frustration and anger,” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “The Kingdom should rethink this strategy.” In its announcement ending all rallies and gatherings, Bahrain’s Minister of Interior explained that recent rallies “extended to callings for the overthrowing of leading national figures” and “that those acts were emptied of respect and intended humiliation, hence they jeopardize civil peace and disturb security and general order.” This, he said, couldn’t be accepted in any condition. In recent months there has been violence at some of the protests as a fringe of demonstrators clash with the police, leading to several deaths and many injuries. Dooley notes that the latest ban is not how most observers hoped the government would respond to last month’s U.N. Human Rights Council recommendation that Bahrain improve its record on freedom of expression. It also seems out of step with President Obama’s May 2011 call to “create the conditions for dialogue.” Just last week, in response to a piece written by Dooley, the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority claimed that there were plenty of opportunities for opponents to voice their criticism of the government. They wrote that, “Bahrain remains a pioneer and a benchmark in the region in preserving the right to express oneself freely. The country guarantees freedom of the press (Article 24, Bahrain Constitution), with local newspapers like Al Wasat criticizing the Government daily since 2002.” “That response failed to mention that Al Wasat’s editor was prosecuted and suspended for three months last year. It also didn’t mention that the newspaper’s founder, Karim Fakhrawi, was tortured to death in custody,” Dooley notes. “Instead, it charged that human rights activists use the basic human right of freedom of expression as a ‘catch-phrase.’ By regarding freedom of expression as a catch-phrase instead of a human right and by cracking down on peaceful dissent, the Bahraini government empowers the extremists is says it wants to stop.” Earlier this month, Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino was in Bahrain to observe court proceedings, meet with Bahraini officials and speak with human rights defenders. Dooley has visited the country three times since its uprising began and has authored a series of reports detailing developments there.