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August 08, 2014

Bahrain Government Throttles Political Dissent

By Jannat Majeed

On July 24, 2014 the Bahraini Ministry of Justice filed lawsuits to suspend for three months two opposition groups, the National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad) and the Justice and Development Movement (JDM).  These lawsuits come on the heels of a suit to suspend Al Wefaq, the country’s largest opposition group.

The Ministry said it was seeking to suspend JDM because it violated the law by failing to hold a general assembly and an elective assembly.  Regarding Wa’ad, the Ministry said it had not elected a new Secretary-General.  Wa’ad maintains that Ibrahim Sharif, serving a five-year prison sentence on charges of participating in a coup plot, is its rightful leader.  Sharif is regarded by international human rights organizations as a political prisoner sentenced on trumped up charges after an unfair trial. The hearing on the lawsuit filed against Wa’ad is scheduled for September 9.

Al Wefaq’s alleged crime is “failure to abide by the rules and regulations in holding four general assemblies.” In addition to the lawsuit, the government brought charges against Sheikh Ali Salman and Khalil Al Marzooq, the leader and the deputy leader of Al Wefaq.  The two men were charged on July 10 with violating the “political associations” law after they met with Tom Malinowski, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, without government approval and without a government official present. Malinowski himself was declared persona non grata and expelled from the country after meeting with them.

The Ministry of Justice is also scrutinizing the activities of other political societies.  As it targets previously tolerated groups, the space for dissent and free expression is closing up. What’s more, the fate of the National Dialogue is in doubt because two of the persecuted groups, Wa’ad and Al Wefaq, are supposed to be part of it.

Parliamentary elections will take place later this year.  Opposition groups have said that they plan to boycott the elections unless the government guarantees that they will be fair.  Suspending the activities of three major opposition groups, however, hardly seems like a way to allow fair and equal participation.  These lawsuits only make it more likely the opposition will boycott, ensuring that the parliament will remain an unrepresentative body.

The government also stripped nine more activists of citizenship after they were convicted on charges of participation in an illegal organization or weapons possession. The U.S. government should speak out publicly against the new restrictions and re-evaluate its relationship with its long-time ally.