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Bahrain Political Unrest

Clashes in Abu Saiba village between anti-government protesters and riot police ahead of the planned countrywide anti-regime protest on August 14 organized by Bahrain’s “Tamorrod” movement.
Image by Ahmed Al-Fardan

Coinciding with calls for mass protests on the 14th of August — the anniversary of Bahrain’s independence from Britain — Bahrain’s Government has quickly implemented a number of harsh laws to crack down on the opposition. An extraordinary session of the National Assembly in July produced a set of recommendations for amendments to anti-terrorism laws.  The recommendations were forwarded to the King, who has recently enacted decrees to implement some of them into the law.  The haste with which these provisions were agreed to, and the near-unanimous support from Bahrain’s ministers and legal bodies (including the Human Rights Minister) leave little doubt that they are part of a concerted Government effort to tackle the proposed 14th August protests.  The latest decrees implementing these provisions, which target public gatherings, and parents/guardians of protesters, are clearly directed at civil society.  In this post, we review the specific amendments from a legal perspective.

The first Decree promulgated by the King drastically alters Bahrain’s 1973 public gathering law by imposing sweeping limitations on freedom of expression.  In addition to the previous prohibition imposed in Article 11 of the 1973 law, which contains a ban on “marches, demonstrations or sit-ins before sunrise or after sunset” without special governmental authorization, the decree adds a ban on all “demonstrations, marches, rallies, or sit-ins in the capital city of Manama,” unless “special permission” is obtained from the head of Public Security.  The new ban also covers marches and gatherings that are being held at or “near” hospitals, airports, shopping malls, or other “places of security”. The latter category has been left open for the Interior Ministry to determine. The use of vehicles in any form of gathering has also been prohibited in an apparent bid to limit the mobilization of protesters.

Secondly, there has been an amendment to Decree 17 of 1976 in regards to juveniles.  The new provision holds parents legally responsible if any of their children who is under 16 participates in a demonstration, public gathering, or sit-in.  Parents will face a warning from the Interior Ministry on the first offence, and can be jailed for up to one year, fined 2000BD, or both, on a second offence.  The law states that these measures are intended to monitor and control the child’s behaviour in the future’.  This decree goes further than the National Assembly’s recommendation, which was to target those who involve children in acts of violence.

It is important to recognise that such prohibitions and sanctions have always been imposed in Bahrain.  However, these latest measures signal a drastic shift from practical to legal reprisals against civil society.  A de-facto ban on protests in Bahrain’s capital has been imposed since 2011, as the Government has declined to issue licenses for these protests and cracks down heavily on any attempted protests there.  Protesters have been discouraged from using their vehicles at rallies, through security forces regularly vandalizing cars found near protest sites.

Such a trend is evident in the remainder of the 22 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the King.  The recommendations include withdrawing citizenship from terrorism convicts, more closely monitoring online social media activity, and declaring a state of emergency.  All of these techniques have previously been used, informally, to crack down on dissent.  The difference now is that these proposals stand to be entrenched in law, in public defiance of Bahrain’s international obligations. Other worrying new proposals include severe punishments for instigating a “terrorist crime” — the term is not defined — reprisals against political associations, sweeping new powers for security forces, changes to the educational system and use of media networks for propaganda, and revoking “Royal Pardons” for those targeted by the new laws.  Previous Decrees have been issued to implement some of these measures, though not all are yet implemented in law.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently displayed concern at this trend by reiterating Bahrain’s obligations to allow peaceful gatherings under international human rights standards, as well as the fundamental right to nationality under Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International, has expressed his concern at the new measures, noting that the limitation imposed on demonstrations and gatherings alongside the threat of jailing parents of children who demonstrate “is outrageous, and violates international law”. He further claims that although “authorities in Bahrain have, for years, abused existing legislation to suppress any form of dissent”, the decrees that have been implemented “are taking their disregard for human rights to a completely new level”.

In addition to the formalization of its crackdown in law, Bahrain’s Government continues to take practical measures to target dissidents on the ground. House raids and arbitrary arrests have been increasing in previous weeks alongside credible reports of ill treatment and torture. The State of Emergency in Bahrain has arguably remained in force since 2011, and the scale and intensity of the current crackdown threatens to push the country further into a darkening abyss.

Translated Amendments

1) Decree No. (22) amending Legislative Decree No. (18) of (1973) on public meetings, marches and rallies –

  • Article 1:

Replacing the text of Article (11) of Legislative Decree No. (18) of (1973) on public meetings, marches and rallies, with the following text:

Article 11 –

Prohibition on the establishment of marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, or gatherings, or their continuation before sunrise or after sunset unless special written authorization is obtained from the Chief of Public Security or his representative.

The regulation also prohibits demonstrations, marches, rallies or sit-ins in the city of Manama with the exception of sit-ins in front of international organisations if special written permission is obtained from the head of the General Security or his representative identifying the number of participants and the time and place fixed for the organised sit-in.

It also prohibits demonstrations, marches or gatherings that are held or going near hospitals, airports or malls, or places of security required that the Minister of Interior must determine and announce.

  • Article 2:

The Prime Minister and Ministers – each with their own jurisdiction – must ensure the implementation of the provisions of this law. It shall take effect from the date of issuance and shall be published in the Official Gazette.

2) Decree No. (23) on amending some provisions of Decree Law No. (17) for the year 1976 on Juveniles

  • Article 1:

To be added to Article (2) of the Decree Law No. (17) for the year 1976, a new item number (8) stating the following:

Article 2(8):

If found participating in a demonstration or rally or a political gathering or sit-in.

  • Article 2:

Replaces the provisions of articles (4) items (a, c) and (19) and (20) of the Legislative Decree No. (17) for the year 1976 with the following texts:

Article 4(a):

In the events of cases of exposure to the deviations set forth in items (1,2,3,8) of Article (2) of this Act, the Director of the competent authority of the Ministry of Interior warns those responsible for his [juvenile] upbringing in writing to monitor good future behaviour and notify the Ministry of Social Development of this warning.

Article 4(e):

In the events of cases of exposure to the deviations set forth in items (1,2,3,8) of Article (2) of this Act within 6 months of the warning, or any one of the cases provided for in items (4,5,6,7) of the above-mentioned article, measures stipulated in this law will be taken.

Article 19

It is punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine of those responsible for the education and upbringing of the juvenile for the event he was cautioned for in accordance with clause (a) of Article (4) of this Act if he neglects control of the event and the consequence is repeated delinquency presented in one of the cases referred to in Article (2) of this Act.

Article 20

Punishment of imprisonment no longer than one year and/or a fine of no more than two thousand Bahraini Dinars he who neglects the performance of one of his duties if the consequence is the commissioning of a crime or a risk of delinquency present in one of the cases referred to in Article (2) of this Act.

  •  Article 3:

The replacement of the words “Ministry of Social Development” with the “Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs” wherever presented by Legislative Decree No. (17) for the year 1976.

  •  Article 4:

The Prime Minister and Ministers – each with their own jurisdiction – must ensure the implementation of the provisions of this law. It shall take effect from the date of issuance and shall be published in the Official Gazette.

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