HRW on Political Isolation Laws: You Can't Call Bahrain A Democracy

2022-10-31 - 8:07 م

Bahrain Mirror: Human Rights Watch said in a report issued on Monday (October 31, 2022) that the Bahraini government uses political isolation laws and a series of other tactics to keep activists and former opposition members away from public posts. 

The 33-page report entitled "You Can't Call Bahrain A Democracy: Bahrain's Political Isolation Laws" documents the usage of the 2018 political isolation laws in Bahrain in order to bar former political opposition party members not only from running for parliament, but also sitting as members on the boards of governors of civil organizations. 

Human Rights Watch found that human rights abuses linked to the government's deliberate marginalization of opposition figures from social, political, civil, and economic life in Bahrain.

Joey Shea, a Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa researcher, said "Bahrain has spent the past decade suppressing peaceful opposition, and its political isolation laws are another example of the expansion of government repression in new areas. These unfair laws have made Bahrain's parliamentary 'elections' a farce that cannot be free or fair, when any political opposition is made illegal."

Human Rights Watch interviewed activists, members of civil society, and opposition figures, and reviewed and analyzed government statements, laws, and court records. 

In 2016 and 2017, Bahrain's judiciary dissolved the country's two major opposition parties, Al-Wefaq and Wa'ad. The political isolation laws introduced new punitive consequences in the aftermath of the dissolution of these parties by punishing individual members in perpetuity and excluding them even from non-political spheres of life in Bahrain.

Former prisoners are also targeted by the law, which overwhelmingly targets activists and human rights defenders who were arrested in the government's large-scale crackdown during and in the aftermath of the peaceful 2011 pro-democracy and anti-government uprising. The final clause of the political isolation law, concerning individuals who have "disrupted" constitutional life in Bahrain, has been interpreted by Bahraini lawyers and civil society to target former lawmakers and other individuals who resigned or boycotted their elected posts to protest repressive government policies.

The political isolation law was first applied during the 2018 parliamentary elections, during which at least 12 former opposition figures were prohibited from running by Bahrain's Ministry of Justice. Others, believing they would be a victim of the law, boycotted the elections.

This report documents three cases of civil society organizations that struggled to form a board and carry on with their activities due to the impact of these laws. The organizations are: Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Bahrain Women's Union (a union of 13 women's societies that advocates for women's rights in Bahrain), and the Bahraini Society for Resisting Normalization, that oppose normalizing relations with Israel.

The delays in board formation, as a result of the political isolation laws, have devastating consequences on associations: if a new board is not elected and confirmed before the two-year term limit of the previous board expired, the labor ministry suspends access to the organization's bank accounts and funding sources, forcing the association to stop work. Seat vacancies also allow the Ministry of Labour and Social Development to appoint new members, leading to fears that the boards may eventually be stacked with government loyalists and "become pro-government more and more," according to an activist.

A member of a civil society organization told Human Rights Watch that "more than 80% of the members cannot be a candidate because they were either in Wa'ad, Al-Wefaq, or another organization dissolved by the court."

The Bahraini government also uses some form of economic sanctions against opposition figures by preventing them "Good Conduct Certificates," which are issued by the "General Directorate of Crime Detection and Forensic Evidence". These certificates are an essential and necessary prerequisite for obtaining employment in the public or private sector, starting a business, applying to university, and obtaining memberships in social and cultural clubs. 

Former prisoners wait months or years for the certificate. Some opposition figures are denied the certificate outright, harming their ability to support themselves and their families.

 One member of Bahrain's civil society told Human Rights Watch "a friend wanted me to be the head of the school, but the ministry refused the certificate so I could not work. The owner of the school was told by the ministry that they couldn't accept me because I was a member of a political society."

A former Bahraini journalist told Human Rights Watch that because of the "continuous arrests since 2011 until 2017, fear became part of what people experience on a daily basis. It became normal for people to censor themselves and silence themselves before they react."

The Bahraini government should repeal the 2018 political isolation laws, end the deplorable Ministry of Interior practice of denying certificates of good behavior to punish perceived opponents, and restore full legal political and civil rights to all Bahraini citizens. It should restore the previously dissolved political societies, lift all restrictions imposed on opposition figures regarding candidacy in the parliamentary and municipal elections, end the restrictive measures that are harming the basic functioning of civil associations, and release all people jailed solely for their peaceful political activities.

Bahrain's allies, including the US, the UK and other European states, should also pressure authorities to cease its repression of peaceful opposition and civil society and reject the results of what will be unfree and unfair parliamentary elections in November if they do not.

"Bahrain's once-vibrant civil society and opposition coalition are being exterminated through laws that legalize government repression. No one should be under the illusion that Bahrain's 'democratic institutions' are more than a hoax," Joey Shea stated. 

Arabic Version