Further Repression of Freedom of Association: Bahrain Dissolves Al-Wefaq, the Largest Political Society in the Country
Today, 17 July 2016, the Bahrain High Civil Court ordered the dissolution of the largest opposition political society in the country, Al-Wefaq Political Society, and the liquidation of its assets. We, the undersigned NGOs, strongly condemn the escalation of the Bahraini government’s attacks on political societies, and its repressive acts against all forms of peaceful dissent.
On 14 June 2016, Bahraini authorities ordered that Al-Wefaq Society be suspended, and then froze all its assets, halted all of its activities, and closed its headquarters following the Ministry of Justice’s request to the High Civil Court for an emergency order to shutdown the society. The court decision, and the execution of this order was quickly made and the society’s headquarters were sieged and closed, and its website was blocked throughout Bahrain. Although the court had set 6 October 2016, as the commencement of the case to dissolve Al-Wefaq, the hearing was brought forward to 23 June 2016, based on the Ministry of Justice’s request. The court twice moved the hearings to earlier dates than previously scheduled.
On 28 June 2016, the defense team decided to withdraw and submitted a letter to the court stating that “in light of the court's decision to postpone the hearing to 4 July 2016 for our response; and while not permitting us to enter the headquarters of Al-Wefaq to get the necessary documents to prepare our defense and support it with documents; the defense team believes that it is impossible to carry out its work legally and professionally, due to the very short deadline and the refusal of allowing access to those documents.” (Find a copy of Al-Wefaq’s defense letter to court here.)
The court accused Al-Wefaq with allegedly supporting violence, expressing its “solidarity with suspects convicted of instigating hatred of the political regime,” “calling for a coup d'état and demeaning the judiciary and executive bodies,” and calling for “demonstrations and sit-ins that could lead to sectarian strife in the country.”
Despite the prevention of proper, or even adequate, legal representation, and the refusal of access to important documents to form defense pleading, today, 17 July 2016, the Bahraini judiciary took the decision to irrevocably dissolve Al-Wefaq and liquidate its assets after just one month since its closure.
The suspension of Al-Wefaq Society in June was widely condemned by international human rights bodies and governments. Most recently, on 7 July 2016, the European Parliament adopted - with a large majority - a resolution condemning recent human rights abuses by Bahraini authorities, and strongly called for an end to the ongoing repression against the country’s human rights defenders, political opposition and civil society. In this resolution, MEPs stated that “free expression of legitimate and peaceful grievances must be allowed; notes with concern the Bahraini Government’s suppression of legitimate political opposition, including the extension of Sheikh Ali Salman’s sentence, the suspension of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and the freezing of its assets; calls for greater basic freedoms for all Bahraini citizens; insists on an immediate halt to the suppression of different political opinions in the country and the repression of their leading representatives, regardless of their political or religious affiliation.”
This and other recent actions taken by the government of Bahrain are gravely concerning. Yesterday, 16 July 2016, the authorities announced the referral of Shia spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qasim, and other religious figures, to court in order to be prosecuted over charges relating to their freedom of religion – essentially they’re being tried for practicing one of Shia’s main religious duties. This comes following the Ministry of Social Development’s closure of Al-Risala Islamic Society and the Islamic Enlightenment Society. Significantly, these were the two remaining bastions of the Shia Muslim community in Bahrain.
On 20 June 2016, Sheikh Isa Qasim had his citizenship revoked, and reportedly is being threatened with forcible deportation. Last month, the Bahraini King promulgated a bill amending the 2005 Political Societies Law, placing a ban on participation in political decision-making based on discriminatory religious grounds. Furthermore, the court’s sentence against Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq Society, was doubled to nine years’ imprisonment.
Therefore, we, the undersigned NGOs, call upon the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to denounce the government of Bahrain’s actions, immediately suspend arms sales to Bahrain, and to urge it to call off the decision to dissolve Al-Wefaq Society, and to respect the rights to freedom of association.
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
European Center for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)
Justice Human Rights Organization (JHRO)