Bahrain: Criminalising freedom of peaceful assembly

Report documenting latest actions by the Bahraini authorities to criminalise freedom of peaceful assembly in light of recent repressive mechanisms implemented since June 2016


Since the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, Bahrain has seen the largest and most persistent peaceful protests in the country in its history, commencing from February 2011 up until today. The calls of protests revolve around complete democratic transformation. The Bahraini authorities generally returned all demands with violent crackdowns, resulting in the deaths of tens of Bahrainis and the injuries of hundreds. The Bahraini authorities proceed to arrest thousands of protesters, with the vast majority complaining of torture, which led to death of several detainees in custody even as recent as last month.

After a severe international backlash and pressure following the violent crackdown in 2011, Bahrain opted to allow an independent inquiry to commence to examine the events that occurred after the popular uprising commenced. In November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) was released, which confirmed that the Bahraini security forces had exercised an excessive force, torture practices, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and imposed restraints on freedom of opinion and assembly. The BICI report gave a series of recommendations that were accepted by the Bahraini government.

In 2016, the Bahraini authorities orchestrated its largest confrontation against the Bahraini opposition groups in general, and the Bahraini Shia citizens in particular, who are supportive of the opposition movement. Since the early 2016, the Bahraini authorities have dissolved the largest political party, al-Wefaq, while imprisoning its secretary-general for nine years, instead of his initial sentence to four, charging him for the exercise of freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the Tow’iya society, the second largest religious society of the Shia Bahrainis, was shutdown after charges were filed against it, alleging money-laundering and unaccounted monies – even though the issue is the Khums (1/5) tax which is a recognised Shia Muslim charity mechanism practiced domestically in Bahrain and globally by millions of Shia Muslims. Further charges against Shia religious scholars, activists, and orators deepened in such a period.

The violations reached its highest point on 20 June 2016, when the prominent Shia religious leader in the country, Sheikh Isa Qassim, was arbitrarily stripped of his Bahraini nationality.

This report by SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights will document and examine the rationale, legality and effects of the serious violation recently witnessed in Bahrain, and that is the Duraz siege. Through this, we will be able to examine how far the Bahraini authorities have oppressed freedom of expression, and how this has adversely affected the Bahraini Shia community, from the members of the opposition to religious scholars, academics, and activists. We will examine how the Bahraini authorities implement restraints on enshrined universal rights, and how it has controlled online communication.

First: Criminalising freedom of peaceful assembly

Bahrain has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This gives it legitimacy and reasonable applicability in all affairs of Bahrain, and gives the Universal Declaration of Human Rights authority.

Article 21 of the ICCPR states that the “right of peaceful assembly shall be recognised”, and there will be “no restrictions placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law”.

However, domestic laws have been implemented that are not consistent with the ICCPR and international norms, placing the following unreasonable restraints on the citizens of Bahrain:

1- The Bahraini laws on assembly require that the head of national security be informed three days prior to the commencement of an assembly (Article 2). This is in direct disagreement with the view of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly who states, “fundamental rights should not require permission from the state […] and if the organizers of an assembly do not inform the state, there still should be no reason to disband the assembly (paraphrase).”

2- The Bahraini laws on assembly allow, under Articles 2 and 13, to fine and prosecute members of assemblies that have not sought permission. As explained by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly, “there is no need to consider organizers of assemblies as carrying out something illegal (paraphrase)”.

3- The Bahraini laws grant the head of national security or his delegate unreasonably wide-ranging powers, including changing the time and place of an assembly, as well as changing the direction of a moving assembly. The head of national security has powers, under Article 7 of the Bahraini domestic laws on assembly, to enforce any order on an assembly if he reckons that it affects the “national order”. Article 11 further expands powers of the head of national security to include authority over any public demonstration that is considered to have a “security need”.

Second: Security forces manipulation to siege Duraz sit-in

Bahrain’s security forces, from 20 June 2016, have closed off all main routes into and out of Duraz, barricading most entrances, and installing search-points at two open entrances. Documented and verified accounts have confirmed the following:

1- Duraz residents have been subjected to arbitrary questioning and inspection, which allow security forces to humiliate residents and insult their beliefs.

2- Local businesses are massively affected because of the siege, with owners and customers unable to access them in and around the Duraz area.

3- Friday prayers in Duraz, which are the largest in the country, have been consistently prevented. Friday prayers in the Al-Sadiq mosque, for instance, have been prevented at least eight times to date.

4- The use of opening investigations and lodging cases against dissidents by the Bahraini authorities is very prevalent, with an aim to intimidate dissidents. 146 Bahraini citizens have been summoned for investigations, and other 56, including activists and religious scholars, have been detained after investigations.

5- SALAM has received early on complaints that the internet signal is being manipulated to prevent communications regarding the Duraz sit-in. Bahrain Watch carried out an extensive investigation of such an issue, and found that 3G and 4G signals were manipulated to fall within specific times, and 2G was being purposefully saddled to slow down internet communications on mobile phones. This is a contravention of Article 19 of the ICCPR, which enshrines right of expression. The UN Human Rights Council organised a session on the promotion and protection of human rights on the Internet, and produced a report concerning such a right.


Third: Results

1- Bahraini authorities have criminalised practices relating to freedom of assembly and expression by manipulating the laws on assembly. They have implemented unnecessary restraints and inappropriate regulations, and arbitrarily interpreted the law, infringing Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

2- Bahraini authorities have criminalised and sabotaged peaceful assembly, most recently the Duraz sit-in, without giving any proper and legal reasons.

3- Bahraini authorities have orchestrated indiscriminate charges against citizens in order to intimidate those who exercise their right to freedom of assembly and expression.

4- Bahraini authorities have imposed unreasonable restraints on freedom of movement and the use of the internet, in an attempt to constrict on all those that exercise their right to assemble and expression.

Fourth: Recommendations

1- For the Bahraini government to reconsider laws on assembly and stop manipulating them to criminalise rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. More specifically, Article 2, which requires all assemblies to have a permit and be formally informed, and Article 7, which allows the national security to decide time, place, and direction of assembly.

2- For the Bahraini government to monitor officials implementing laws on assembly, and to ensure they are not violent in their implementation and operation.

3- For the Bahraini government to end the Duraz siege, removing all check points and security measures, and allow all citizens their right to peacefully assemble and express their opinion.

4- For the Bahraini government to cease practice of opening investigations intended to intimidate individuals or to punish them for exercising their right to freedoms of assembly and expression.

5- For the Bahraini government to drop all charges against activists, religious scholars and others, for their peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

6- For the Bahraini government to immediately stop the manipulation of internet signal, and ensure the impartiality of the judiciary. The judiciary must be returned to a form where it is not influenced by political or economic interests, especially in cases where published online material that is contrary to state views is considered incriminating.