06 November 2018 – Today, Representative Jim McGovern and Representative Randy Hultgren, the co-chairs of the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, publicized a letter they sent last week asking Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to “take all necessary steps to ensure that the upcoming elections for the Council of Representatives of Bahrain’s National Assembly meet international standards for free and fair elections.” The letter comes several weeks before the Government of Bahrain is due to hold elections for the lower house of parliament – the only government body elected by the people – on Saturday November 24. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the letter and thanks Representatives McGovern and Hultgren for their attention on Bahrain.

Under current conditions, Bahrain’s elections will not be, and cannot be, free and fair, because the government has taken steps to systematically close political and civil society space, arrest political opposition figures, bar members of certain political groups from running for office, and sharply restrict free expression. Furthermore, “Bahrain’s electoral infrastructure inherently disadvantages the political opposition, as there is no independent electoral commission and to date there has been no commitment by the government to permit either domestic or international observers.”

Recognizing this, Representatives McGovern and Hultgren note that “it will be difficult under these conditions for the international community to recognize the upcoming elections as legitimate.” They thus recommend several steps the Bahraini government must take to “restore credibility to the elections,” including:

  • Restoring the opposition’s political rights,
  • Redrawing electoral districts,
  • Guaranteeing the presence of elections observers,
  • And releasing imprisoned opposition leaders.

“We thank Representatives McGovern and Hultgren for their steadfast interest and support on issues concerning Bahrain, especially the upcoming lower parliamentary elections,” says ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “The Government of Bahrain must now take steps to implement these recommendations and ensure free and fair elections, starting with the release of all political prisoners and the restoration of opposition political rights. Free and fair elections cannot happen without space for members of civil and political society to assemble freely and without fear of exercising the right to free expression, nor without the independent press. The international community must not recognize the elections as they currently stand or if Bahrain fails to meet these standards, lest it green-light further repression and abuse in Bahrain.”

ADHRB welcomes the letter from the co-chairs of the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and thanks them for their work on Bahrain. ADHRB calls for the Government of Bahrain  to adhere to the recommendations provided by the co-chairs and take steps, including the release of political prisoners, to ensure that the upcoming elections be deemed free and fair by the international community come 22 November.  Free and fair elections for the people of Bahrain may only be achieved through such meaningful measures, and only if Bahrain seriously reforms the current state of civil and political society space to allow for free expression and assembly.

Read the full-text of the letter below, or find a pdf of the letter here.

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Your Majesty,

As Co-Chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, an official bipartisan body of the United States House of Representatives, we write regarding the upcoming elections for the Council of Representatives of Bahrain’s National Assembly. The elections are important because the Council is the only elected governing body in Bahrain. However, we are concerned that the conditions necessary to ensure that Bahrain’s elections meet widely accepted international standards are not in place and in consequence the results may be considered illegitimate by many. In light of Bahrain’s strong bilateral alliance with the United States, we respectfully urge you to take all necessary steps to ensure the credibility of the elections.

In order for elections to meet international standards, citizens must be able to organize politically and support candidates. Your government’s decisions to dissolve the Al Wefaq and Wa’ad political societies, both of which participated in most prior elections, and to imprison many key leaders have deprived large sectors of the population of their preferred political options. The May 2018 amendment to the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights that bars anyone who has ever belonged to one of the dissolved political societies, or anyone who has been sentenced to more than six months in prison for an “intentional offense,” from running for political office on an individual basis further exacerbates the problem of political representation.

In addition, Bahrain’s electoral infrastructure inherently disadvantages the political opposition. Voting districts have been drawn in such a way as to significantly overrepresent the minority Sunni population. Polling stations are not tied to specific constituencies and so are vulnerable to abuse. There is no independent electoral commission and to date there has been no commitment by your government to permit either domestic or international election observation as described and encouraged by the U.N. affirmed “Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation” which has now been endorsed by 55 countries and international organizations.

Furthermore, elections can only be fair when citizens are free to express and debate their views on matters of public concern. But Al Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent news outlet, was forced to close last year, and writers and bloggers are among those unjustly imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Under these conditions it will be difficult for the international community to recognize the upcoming elections as legitimate. We thus strongly encourage you to undertake the following:

  • Repeal the May 2018 amendment to the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights.
  • Redraw electoral districts and establish polling stations linked to each district.
  • Guarantee the presence of international media and elections observers before and throughout the electoral process.
  • Release imprisoned opposition leaders, writers and civil society leaders, including Sheikh Ali Salman, Hassan Mushaima, Abduljalil Al-Singace, Ahmed Humaidan, Naji Fateel, Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

As Members of Congress, we recognize that Bahrain, the host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been an important ally for American security interests. At the same time, support for democracy and human rights is a pillar of American foreign policy, and we are concerned that Bahrain’s current political path will lead to increased instability over time. Ensuring that the upcoming National Assembly elections are credible and legitimate would be an important corrective. The failure to do so could reinforce the willingness of Members of Congress to take more coercive measures like the recent joint resolution introduced by Senator Rand Paul to block arms sales to the Kingdom.

            Sincerely,

            James P. McGovern                                                    Randy Hultgren

            Member of Congress                                                  Member of Congress

            Co-Chair, TLHRC                                                      Co-Chair, TLHRC

115th Congress