The Bahrain government is currently engaged in a new crackdown on activists and wider civil liberties. In the past few days alone, dangerous new legislation has been introduced, there have been many arrests including prominent activists, and the government has “sanctioned a witch hunt” through the creation of a “hotline” for citizens to report websites and social media accounts deemed to be against “public interests and targeting national unity and civic peace”. Security has been ratcheted up with reports of increased police presence in many different areas. Three deaths have occurred over the past week in “suspicious” circumstances, according to the opposition. All involved traffic accidents. Hussain Kadhem was in police custody at the time of his death. Two youths were fugitives when they were killed. Their family believe they were being chased by police. Meanwhile another protester is intensive care after being run down.
The government’s crackdown comes in advance of August 14th, when opposition groups are preparing a day of mass protest under the banner ‘Bahrain Tamarrod’ (Rebellion). The date is also symbolic. It marks the day when Bahrain gained independence from Britain in 1971 and has long been an occasion for opposition protest as the Bahrain government refuses to celebrate it. Bahrain Tamarrod was first announced on July 4th. The idea quickly gained support from the full spectrum of opposition groups and societies. On July 15th, Government Spokesperson Sameera Rajab warned against “involvement” with the movement. Despite this, popular support for Bahrain Tamarrod grew, whilst pro-government supporters and politicians began to escalate their calls for a crackdown.
On Sunday, July 28th, the National Assembly met to discuss new “anti-terrorism” legislation, having been recalled by King Hamad a few days prior. The politicians made a series of recommendations which were quickly supported by a range of government officials, including the Prime Minister, Crown Prince and even the Human Rights Minister. The recommendations were condemned by the opposition and by multiple local and international NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First.
The government has wasted no time in implementing them. On July 29th, King Hamad wrote to the Prime Minister, reportedly calling for “essential speedy implementation of these recommendations”. The Prime Minister subsequently directed “all ministries and concerned departments” start working on their implementation. He then chaired an extraordinary session of the Cabinet, who claimed that the recommendations would “inaugurate a new era of security, stability and safety in Bahrain.” In contrast, the BBC’s Bill Law wrote: “The recommendations if implemented in full would effectively return the country to a state of martial law.”
On July 31st, King Hamad issued two new royal decrees, bringing into legislation even harsher sentences and punishments, including the revocation of citizenship as a penalty for a range of offences. The decrees amended the 2006 law on the “Protection of the Community Against Terrorist Acts” in the following ways:
Article 10 was amended to increase the minimum punishment to 10 years for “whomever carries out a bombing or attempts to carry out a bombing for terrorism purposes”. If “the bombing/explosion resulted in a death or injury” the punishment will be “execution or life imprisonment”.
Article 10 was also amended to make fake bombs illegal. It now reads: “Imprisonment shall be the punishment of whoever puts or carries in public or private places for the same reason prototypes or models that look like or resemble explosives or firecrackers.”
Article 24 was amended to vastly expand the revocation of citizenship as a punishment for certain offences. This now makes it possible for authorities to render stateless anyone accused of:
- “each one who runs an organization, society, institution or association established according to the law and exploits his management thereof to advocate the commission of any of the crimes provided for in this Law” (Article 9)
- “everyone who solicits any society, association, organization, group or gang that carries out a terrorist activity […] or communicates therewith or with any person who acts to serve the interest of any such groups” (Article 12)
- “everyone who incites another to commit a crime for the implementation of a terrorist objective even though his acts shall be of no effect” (Article 17)
The 1956 law on charity fundraising was also amended to give the public prosecution power to order to“view and obtain any data or information of accounts, deposits, or safes with banks or other [entities] to reveal the truth of crimes stated in this law.” The law was also amended to make any fundraising by organisations subject to authorization by the relevant government ministry at least two months prior to the activity. The “request should include the way, period, place and purpose of the fundraising”. Government bodies are exempt from these new amendments.
Also on July 31st, the Ministry of State for Communication Affairs announced that it had begun implementing the National Assembly recommendations. Bahrain state media reported that the Ministry intended “to enforce legal procedures against anyone who misuses social networking systems and tampers with Bahrain’s security and stability”. The Ministry also announced the creation of a hotline, “for the people in Bahrain to report any websites or accounts inciting violence and terror acts, jeopardising people’s life and public interests and targeting national unity and civic peace”. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) stated that “it appears that the Ministry is merely calling for another ‘name and shame’ campaign similar to the one started in 2011 which targeted pro-democracy activists.“ The Ministry’s announcement came on the same day that Bahrain Watch released an extensive report documenting the “Twitter army” that has been unleashed to silence online dissent.
BCHR has said that it is “gravely concerned” about the “authorities’ actions to legalize human rights violations and crackdown”. BCHR has raised serious concerns about the Bahrain government’s current and historic misuse of anti-terror legislation to target opposition activists and leaders. The label “terrorist” is often applied to political opponents and human rights activists as a legal tool of repression. A recent example is human rights defender Naji Fateel who was arrested in May. Photographs demonstrate that he was tortured whilst in detention. He is currently being charged under the terrorism act. Front Line Defenders attended a recent court session and determined that the trial “falls short of international standards”.
Security forces began a harsh crackdown almost immediately following the meeting of the National Assembly, with renewed house raids and arrests. These arrests included prominent activists. At around 3am on July 31st, masked men arrested blogger and fixer Mohamed Hassan from his home. They searched the house and seized all his electronic devices. Later that night, photojournalist Hussain Hubail, a close friend of Mohamed, was arrested from Bahrain airport. Mohamed had been expected to appear before the public prosecutor on August 1st to learn the charges against him. However, there is no confirmation that this has happened. BCHR consider him subject to “enforced disappearance”. Hussain’s whereabouts are currently unknown. His brother contacted CID yesterday, but they “denied having him”. In a further example of the rising intimidation against the opposition, on July 30th masked men were filmed removing the CCTV cameras outside the house of Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of opposition society Al-Wefaq.
House raids continued throughout August 1st, including raids in Aali, Shahrakkan, Saddad and Buri. Said Yousif Almuhafda, head of monitoring at BCHR, said that he “documented many injuries” during the day, including injuries from “tear gas [canisters] and shotgun in the upper part of protesters bodies”. Further enactment of the National Assembly recommendations is also anticipated. Analyst Emile Nakhleh summed up the situation: “Bahrain Declares War on the Opposition”.
The scale and intensity of the government’s pre-emptive strikes against the opposition to thwart the planned protests on August 14th has reminded Bahrainis of the atmosphere created when the King called for a state of emergency in 2011. Very little in the country has changed since then – and the aspirations of democracy remain just a dream, whilst the reality of state terror continues.