Bahrain Moves to Ban Opposition Ahead of 2018 Elections

** Update 11 June 2018: Today, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain confirmed the amendment to Law No. 14 relating to political exclusion. The amendment will soon be published in the Official Gazette. 

30 May 2018 – The National Assembly, Bahrain’s parliament, has advanced new legislation that will virtually ban members of the political opposition from seeking election. Both houses of the National Assembly have approved the measure, and the king may confirm it at any time. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) denounces this clear attack on independent political participation and calls on the Government of Bahrain to reject the law before the 2018 elections.

On 13 May 2018, the Shura Council (the royally appointed upper house of the National Assembly) approved an amendment to the second paragraph of Article 3 of Law No. 14 of 2002, known as the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights. Though the original provision temporarily prevented certain individuals from running for office in the Council of Representatives (the elected lower house of the National Assembly) for a period of ten years, the new amendment broadens the scope of exclusion and renders it permanent. Specifically, it expands permanent prohibition to:

  • “Felons and persons previously convicted to a prison sentence of six months or more;”
  • “Leaders and members of dissolved political organizations that were dissolved by a final sentence for committing a serious violation of the provisions of the Kingdom’s Constitution or laws”; and
  • “Whoever destroys or disrupts the conduct of constitutional or parliamentary life by terminating or leaving the parliamentary work in the Council [of Representatives] or had their membership revoked for the same reason.”

In effect, these new provisions apply to nearly all of Bahrain’s formal and informal political opposition groups, as well as thousands of independent activists and average Bahrainis sentenced to lengthy prison terms for exercising their rights to free expression, association, and assembly.

Since 2012, the Bahraini authorities have arbitrarily dissolved all of the country’s major opposition societies on groundless national security charges. In the aftermath of the crackdown on the pro-democracy protest movement in 2011, the government first closed the Islamic Action Society, also known as Amal, in July 2012 after arresting approximately 200 of its members. Four years later, in July 2016, the High Civil Court approved a similar order against Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, Bahrain’s largest political group. The authorities followed suit with the National Democratic Action Society, also known as Wa’ad, in May 2017 after it criticized the baseless closure of Al-Wefaq. Wa’ad’s first appeal was rejected in October 2017, and Bahrain’s highest court confirmed Al-Wefaq’s dissolution in February 2018. The leaders of both societies have continued to face judicial harassment, with Al-Wefaq’s Secretary-General, Sheikh Ali Salman, currently incarcerated for giving political speeches; he is now facing a potential death penalty on unfounded new charges stemming from Qatar’s mediation attempt during the 2011 unrest and the ongoing diplomatic crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Only the small Al-Wahdawi opposition society remains legally recognized, and the authorities have recently targeted its leadership for arbitrary detention and interrogation as well. All together, thousands of Bahrainis have been affiliated with the dissolved societies – Amal, Al-Wefaq, and Wa’ad – and Al-Wefaq alone was estimated to have 65,000-70,000 members at its height. All of these individuals may now be excluded from political office if the new law is enacted by the king.

The amendment will additionally impact the hundreds of Bahrainis that have received prison terms in excess of six months on charges that criminalize basic freedoms. Bahrain holds as many as 4,000 political prisoners, making it the largest per capita jailer in the Middle East, and countless more who have completed their sentences will now be permanently barred from ever seeking political office. This includes the former leader of the last official opposition society, Fadhel Abbas of Al-Wahdawi, who recently left prison after finishing a three-year prison term stemming from the group’s criticism of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen on Twitter.

This blatant campaign against the political opposition comes as the kingdom is set to hold new elections for the Council of Representatives in fall 2018. Bahrain’s National Assembly is already deeply hamstrung and lacks the authority to serve as an effective check on executive branch of government, but the authorities have taken increasingly abusive measures – from gerrymandering and voter fraud to violent attacks on politicians – to guarantee that the elected lower house is not representative. As a result, political power is concentrated in the Al Khalifa ruling family, with members holding nearly all key posts and exerting extreme influence over both parliamentary elections and legislative decisions. The new amendment to the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights, if confirmed, will close what little remains of political space in Bahrain.

“Bahrain’s leaders like to say that the kingdom is a ‘constitutional monarchy’ like the UK or Denmark. This is simply untrue – the Al Khalifa’s control over the political system is absolute,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “Bahrain’s so-called ‘democratic institutions’ are a sham, and the Al Khalifa have engineered a rubberstamp parliament to give their orders the illusion of popular legitimacy. They used it to push through an illegal measure allowing military trials for civilians last year, and now they’re using it to formally prohibit the opposition from ever again participating in Bahraini politics. This is not democracy, this is dictatorship.”

It is already impossible for Bahrain to hold free and fair elections with the opposition societies closed and their leadership imprisoned. This new amendment will formally outlaw even the semblance of democratic participation in the kingdom’s political system. ADHRB calls on the Government of Bahrain to unequivocally reject the proposal.

Furthermore, Bahrain will look to its closest democratic allies – the United States and the United Kingdom – for a seal of approval on the upcoming vote. If the amendment is confirmed, and if the government fails to reinstate the opposition and release political prisoners, the US and the UK must lead the international community in publicly rejecting the outcome the elections and pressuring for urgent reform. Such pressure must include the suspension of all weapons sales and security assistance pending new reform conditions, lest the US and UK directly endorse further Bahraini repression.