Authorities in Bahrain have today announced the suspension of the main opposition society, Al Wefaq, for an initial period of three months. Although the given justifications are bureaucratic in nature, this is a politicized attack on freedom of expression in Bahrain. Furthermore it exposes the true nature of the Bahraini authorities, who continue to pursue a course of repression rather than reconciliation with its people.
Al Wefaq described the decision as “ irrational and irresponsible”, adding, “the tyrannical dictatorship in Bahrain is ruling with an iron fist and moving to destroy the political and social life by blocking the people out.”
The full implications of the ban are as of yet unclear, although a lawyer for the society said it would effectively translate as an entire blanket ban on all activities by Al Wefaq, including press conferences, protests, official visits and even speaking on behalf of the society.
In July this year the Ministry of Justice filed a lawsuit against Al Wefaq, accusing the society of violating the law relating to political societies as well as their own statutes. The accusations relate to Al Wefaq’s previous general assemblies that the Ministry described as “null and void”, claiming they failed to reach quorum.
Ali Alaswad, a resigned Bahraini MP from Al Wefaq, rejected the accusations saying, “All of our internal procedures are in line with democratic norms. If the authorities believe there are too few participants at our national conferences then the fault lies with them for denying us larger conference buildings. We have regularly been refused permission to hold our conferences in larger buildings, we would fill in the entire Bahraini national stadium, if given the chance.”
The deep irony of a state that has a completely unelected political leadership, including the head of state, the prime minister, the full cabinet and ministers, complaining about a lack of a democracy from the opposition is well noted. The unelected prime minister has been in power since 1971 and yet the number of attendees at an opposition general assembly concerns the authorities in Bahrain.
However, the bureaucratic justifications for the suspension are merely a smokescreen for a much larger political attack on the activities of the opposition in Bahrain. The filing of the lawsuit in July came just days after two leading figures in Al Wefaq were summoned for meeting with an US official, who was removed from the country.
The applying of pressure on Al Wefaq has been steadily increasing in the past year. In September 2013 Khalil Almarzooq, Political Assistant to the Secretary General, was detained for more than 30 days accused of inciting violence, although charges were later dropped following court hearings. Last December, Sheikh Ali Salman, Al Wefaq Secretary General, was charged for “inciting hatred and spreading false news”, and just last week the head of Al Wefaq’s Shura Council was questioned over a series of tweets.
Yet despite the steady increase in attacks against the society and its individuals, the authorities have been quick to condemn Al Wefaq for refusing participation in the coming parliamentary elections. Earlier this month the main opposition societies announced they would not be taking part in the 22nd November election, and have since faced accusations of non-engagement.
But the growing attacks on Al Wefaq, culminating with this 3 month suspension, lay clear the lack of credibility to the authorities claims that they have any interest in engaging with the opposition. Since the beginning of the political crisis in Bahrain in February 2011 calls from the opposition, as well as President Obama, for a serious political dialogue have fallen on deaf ears. A number of initiatives have taken place, all of which the opposition has engaged with, but have failed to reach any serious conclusions towards reform.
By following this ill intended court case and enacting a suspension of activity, it is impossible to conclude that the Bahraini authorities were ever serious about hoping the opposition would take part in the electoral process. Although the suspension was announced after the opposition’s decision was made public, the original lawsuit began long before and is supposedly based on a separate issue. This puts in major doubt the opposition’s ability take part in the election, had their position been different.
The Bahrain Justice And Development Movement feels it should now be fundamentally clear to all observers that the attitude of the authorities towards the opposition continues to be that of repression rather than reconciliation. For almost 4 years every call from the opposition for reform has been ignored and the level of human rights violations has only intensified.
There is a clear responsibility on the part of the international community to act now to stop this repressive measure and prevent it from being deepened. Al Wefaq has consistently engaged with the international community, taking heed of their advice and working within their recommendations. Any abandonment of Al Wefaq by the governments around the world would be a major slap in the face for their claims of standing up for democracy.
Should this temporary suspension go unchallenged it undoubtedly leaves the door open for a more permanent ban of all opposition and the effective shutting down of Bahrain’s civil society in full. Not only would this be a major step backwards for political reform in Bahrain, but also will enflame tensions further, leading the country down a path of unknown consequences. Al Wefaq has worked tirelessly to ensure protest in Bahrain remains peaceful and non-violent, famously launching the “non-violence declaration” in November 2012.
The Bahrain Justice And Development Movement calls on the international community, it’s governments, NGO’s and people to stand in solidarity with Al Wefaq and all of the political opposition in Bahrain coming under attack.
The reality is that Bahrain will only return to stability and peace if the authorities treat the opposition as partners and not as enemies.