WASHINGTON, July 25, 2014 – Last Sunday, the Justice Ministry of the Kingdom of Bahrain filed a lawsuit against a Shia opposition group, Al-Wefaq, in an effort to halt its operations. The lawsuit seeks to block Al-Wefaq from lobbying for greater freedoms in the Kingdom, following the meeting of representatives from Al-Wefaq and a senior U.S. democracy and human rights official.
Al-Wefaq, which is the largest political party in Bahrain, is best known for organizing peaceful protests to demand increased cultural and political rights for Bahrain’s Shia majority. The group has also lobbied for a constitutional monarchy. More than 70% of Bahrain’s Muslims are Shia, but the country is ruled by a Sunni monarchy which largely ignores the concerns of the majority.
In addition to championing Shia rights, Al-Wefaq has also been outspoken in its advocacy for civil liberties such as the freedom of speech, women’s rights, and the right to education. Additionally, Al-Wefaq has been critical of the Bahraini Government for torturing political prisoners.
Bahrain is a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 22 of the ICCPR guarantees the freedom of association, and article 2 ensures that the rights enshrined in the Covenant are guaranteed equally without regard for religion.
The government of Bahrain, however has focused an inordinate amount of pressure on Al-Wefaq while allowing similar Sunni organizations to operate relatively freely.
The Sunni leaders of Bahrain have a long and contentious history with Al-Wefaq, arresting and killing many of its members. Since the Arab Spring protests began in 2011, Bahrain has used deadly force to quell peaceful protests organized by Al-Wefaq leaving dozens of Shia dead. In 2011, the government attempted to dissolve Al-Wefaq for organizing the protests and placed a travel ban on its leader Ali Salman in 2013.
Bahrain’s most recent effort to dissolve the group follows a meeting between members of Al-Wefaq and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski. This meeting took place without a Bahraini official present which resulted in the U.S. Government’s human rights envoy being expelled from Bahrain.
While the Bahraini Government has argued that Al-Wefaq violated an arcane association rule, this is only a pretext. The reason behind the move is that the monarchy wants to eliminate Al-Wefaq’s voice and its continued insistence on giving Bahrain’s Shia a say in Bahraini politics.
SRW condemns Bahrain’s violation of the ICCPR by denying Shia groups the same freedom of association that Sunni groups enjoy. Additionally, SRW calls on the international community in general, and the United States in particular, to call Bahrain to account for punishing an organization for seeking greater cooperation with the international community to ensure human rights.