IPU 146 Held in a State with a Sterile Parliament & Former Prominent MPs Behind Bars
As IPU 146 is held, the host country continues to impose restrictions on expression, association, and assembly in violation of its international human rights obligations.
Al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s top opposition bloc (now-outlawed), has reminded the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which got underway its 146th assembly - in Manama - on Saturday, that the host country has no “real parliament that reflects the will of the people.”
The opposition bloc stressed that the real representatives of the Bahrainis are either in exile or prison “over politically motivated charges,” including its Secretary General, Sheikh Ali Salman, who is detained “because of his peaceful and civilized views, and calling for legislative and political reform.”
Between 2006 and 2011, Al-Wefaq held the largest bloc in parliament, controlled many municipal councils, including in the capital Manama, and led Bahrain’s labor union. In 2016, it was banned amid the intensifying crackdown on the political opposition.
Meanwhile, five former Bahraini opposition MPs penned a letter to Martin Chungong, the Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), referring to themselves as “forcibly exiled former Bahraini MPs." The signatories stressed that Manama does not abide by the “principles of democracy and equality that the IPU promotes and defends.”
Al Wefaq’s former MPs (Sheikh Hassan Sultan, Jawad Fairouz, Jalal Fairouz, Matar Matar, and Ali Al-Aswad) appealed to Chungong to press Manama to free all political prisoners, starting with Sheikh Ali Salman and former MP Sheikh Hassan Issa; along with allowing the formation of political opposition societies and engaging in serious dialogue about building a democratic state.
Entry visa of HRW’s observers revoked
Ahead of the event, Manama revoked the entry visas of Niku Jafarnia and Michael Page, Human Rights Watch’s staff members, who were due to attend the IPU’s assembly despite receiving their visas in January. HRW, which holds permanent observer status with the IPU, urged the attendees to highlight Bahrain’s “dire state of political freedom in Bahrain.”
On Twitter, Jafarnia commented that Bahrain’s authorities “showed their true colors," adding, “There is nothing ‘inclusive’ about this event, just more whitewashing."
For her part, Tirana Hassan, HRW’s acting executive director, blasted Manama’s behavior and labeled it as a “blatant example of Manama’s escalating repression.” Hassan urged the attendees to loudly speak out “on behalf of Bahrain’s victims of repression” against “Bahrain’s abuses so they are not complicit in its efforts to whitewash its horrific rights record."
In the same context, human rights consultant Brian Dooley criticized the IPU for failing to condemn Manama’s move and to denounce “the multitude of other violations committed by the Manama dictatorship against human rights and democracy.” Dooley blasted the US embassy in Manama for staying silent about “Bahrain’s latest attempts to stifle both human rights and democracy."
Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet, has been in political turmoil since 2011. The US has failed to publicly raise human rights concerns with Bahraini authorities. In 2019, the US State Department approved 3 major weapons sales to the regime worth $3.4 billion, regardless of its dismal freedoms record and violent persecution of peaceful dissidents.
Bahrain’s worsening state of political freedoms
As IPU 146 is held, the host country continues to impose restrictions on expression, association, and assembly in violation of its international human rights obligations; opposition voices are systematically repressed.
In recent years, Bahrain’s regime arbitrarily detained 11 former MPs and sentenced 10 of them to prison following unfair trials and stripped 4 MPs of their citizenship merely exercising their right to freedom of expression. Its politically-motivated judiciary has arbitrarily dissolved the country’s main political opposition blocs, Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad.
Manama has introduced Political Isolation Laws to bar former members of dissolved political associations from running for parliament & CSOs. These laws have targeted former political prisoners, including former MPs; those impacted routinely face delays/denials in their ability to access “Good Conduct Certificates." The laws have also resulted in the denial of the right to vote for roughly 100K Bahrainis.
Further, Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, was arbitrarily forced to shut down in 2017. Since Feb 2011, Bahrain’s use of the death penalty has escalated dramatically by 20%. Meanwhile, at least 26 Bahraini citizens are on death row, 12 of whom have exhausted legal remedies and are at risk of execution despite documented claims of torture. 300+ Bahrainis have been stripped of their citizenship following arbitrary processes. This includes Bahrain’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Issa Qassim.
The authorities have demonstrated a zero-tolerance policy for any dissident critiques and carried out a systematic campaign of retribution. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report confirms the “existence of an operational plan to terrorize protesters" and concluded that “a lack of accountability had led to a culture of impunity.”
SG of Al Wefaq’s politicized cause: Manama’s miscarriage of justice
Last December, Sheikh Ali Salman marked 8 years behind bars. He was arrested on December 28, 2014, and was initially sentenced to 4 years in prison for his peaceful political activities.
As he neared the end of his initial sentence, he was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted on bogus espionage charges that stem from a public mediation attempt aimed at resolving Bahrain’s 2011 crisis, which involved recorded and announced phone calls with Qatari officials.
In a statement from behind the prison walls, Sheikh Salman has expressed his commitment to “real reforms” and “true national reconciliation."
Sheikh Ali Salman touched on his life sentence, saying, “The Qatari Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, contacted me in his capacity as a representative of the Gulf Cooperation Council, in good faith to find a solution to this crisis,” adding, “This came at the request of Prince Saud Al-Faisal [the former Saudi foreign minister.”
He wondered, “Is it permissible for me to refuse to receive this call? … How did receiving an open and public phone call from a high-level delegation from the Gulf Cooperation Council concerned with resolving the crisis at that time turn into a crime?”
Sheikh Salman reiterated that the opposition’s “hands were, and still are extended for dialogue, which is the only way to resolve the differences,” stressing, “If we worked in accordance with a sincere national vision away from narrow calculations, our situation and the country’s human rights situation would not have deteriorated.”
He maintained that “every day that passes while the country is gripped by an internal conflict is a day wasted. No one should be under the illusion that suppressing aspirations for democracy, freedom, and respect for human rights is a victory. This is harmful and a loss for whoever does it. Victory lies in working on unity and synergy and in building bridges of trust and affection among all.”
Bahrain’s sterile parliament
The ongoing peaceful uprising erupted after the 2001 referendum in which citizens voted overwhelmingly for the National Action Charter, which promised key democratic reforms, including a popularly elected national assembly.
Nevertheless, the regime violently crushed 2011’s pro-democracy uprising calling for democratic reforms that would give the elected parliament full powers to legislate and form a popular cabinet as the current parliament has largely acted as a rubber stamp for the monarch’s policies.
Bahrain held the parliamentary elections in November 2022. Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s highest Shiite cleric and a former MP, said there was no need to hold legislative elections in a country where the parliament doesn’t represent the people. “If the elections are for a parliament that represents the government and not the people, in order to help it continue its unjust unilateral policy, then why the fuss, the expenses, the open fallacies, and the deception?”
Ayatollah Qassim underscored the need for an “agreed-upon election law between the government and the opposition, a parliament elected through free and fair elections, and an agreed-upon constitution.”