After nearly two years of non-stop social unrest and protests against the ruling monarchy, things have taken a precipitous turn for the worse for civil liberties in Bahrain this week. Martial law rules have been in effect in the tiny Gulf nation since late last year, but on Tuesday, the government took the remarkable step of declaring a ban on all public rallies and demonstrations--a move government spokesman, Fahad al-Binali claims is “temporary” and intended to “calm things down” after the recent deaths of protesters and police officers.
The US State Department condemned the declaration as an attack on Bahraini citizen’s universal human rights to free expression and association. State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed “deep concern,” adding that he urged the government of Bahrain to "work with responsible protest leaders to find a way for peaceful and orderly demonstrations to take place. The decision to curb these rights is contrary to Bahrain's professed commitment to reform and will not help advance national reconciliation nor build trust among all parties.” The US has a strong interest in maintaining stability in Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
British minister for the Middle East and North Africa Alistair Burt joined the chorus of disapproval, calling the move “excessive” and reminding the monarchy that “peaceful protest is a democratic right.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was somewhat more forceful in his criticism, pointing out that the restrictions violate international human rights standards, including respect for freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and urging the government to lift them immediately.
Rather than lifting the restrictions, the Bahraini government has continued full steam ahead. On Thursday, a civil court sentenced an online activist to a six-month prison term on charges of insulting the King in a Twitter post. The activist, whose name was not released, was one of four people arrested weeks ago for the same crime. The court is expected to rule in the other three activists’ cases next week. In addition to the sentence, the Bahrain News Agency reports that the court ordered the confiscation of the activist’s laptop and cell phone, which may result in the unearthing of evidence that might result in additional charges.
In the meantime, the arrests continue. On Friday, Photojournalist Mazen Mahdi reported that Said Yousif Almuhafda, head of Monitoring for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights had been detained while taking part in a peaceful protest in the village of Duraz, in defiance of the ban on public protest.
EFF joins with the US State Department, Great Britain, and the United Nations, and countless human rights organizations including Amnesty International in condemning the Bahraini government’s ongoing attacks on its citizens’ right to freedom of assembly and free expression. We will continue to keep a close eye on the situation as it develops.