Today, 14 June 2021, marks half a decade since the Bahraini Administrative Court’s 2016 suspension of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the major political opposition party in Bahrain. At the behest of the Ministry of Justice, authorities in Bahrain froze Al-Wefaq’s assets, halted its activities, closed its headquarters, and blocked access to its website throughout Bahrain—thereby violating their right to expression and association. The Ministry of Justice request to close Al-Wefaq was deemed an emergency order, claiming that the political group was supporting violence, tarnishing the reputation of the judiciary and executive bodies, and “instigating hatred of the political regime.”
Al-Wefaq suspension was rightfully and promptly condemned by local and international actors and bodies, including the United Nations and the European Union. The Kingdom of Bahrain’s attacks on political and peaceful dissent has likewise been criticized by numerous major foreign powers, including close Bahraini allies such as the United States and the United Kingdom.
Nonetheless, just a month later, the Bahrain High Civil Court ruled in favor of Al-Wefaq’s dissolution on 17 July 2016. The hearing was tainted with numerous issues, such as the lack of protection of an accused person, that amount to violations of Bahrain’s own national constitution and of international law. To name a few, the Court moved hearings on the case to dissolve Al-Wefaq twice to earlier dates than previously scheduled at the request of the Ministry of Justice. At a later point, Al-Wefaq’s defense team withdrew from the case, declaring in a statement to the Court that “it is impossible to carry out [the defense team’s] work legally and professionally” when it has been given such a short deadline and when Bahraini authorities refuse them to enter the Al-Wefaq headquarters to gather the documents necessary to prepare their case.
Notably, Al-Wefaq is not the only political opposition group to have been dissolved by the Bahraini authorities. On 31 May 2017, the National Democratic Action Society, or Wa’ad, was also forcibly dissolved by the Bahrain government, and its members were prohibited from participating in national elections.
What is more, is that Al-Wefaq’s closure was not an isolated attack on dissent and human rights by the Bahraini government. At the time of its closure, the head of Al-Wefaq opposition group, Sheikh Ali Salman, had been arbitrarily imprisoned since July 2015. And just a month prior to its closure, the Court more than doubled Salman’s sentence on appeal in May 2016. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had determined in September 2015 that his detention was indeed arbitrary.
Furthermore, on the same day of Al-Wefaq’s closure, Bahrain’s Ministry of Social Development closed non-profit Shia religious and social organizations for allegedly illegally collecting money. These organizations activities, however, mainly supported orphans and the poor. A day prior, Bahraini authorities also arrested prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab for allegedly spreading false news and insulting the integrity of the state. With all this in mind, it is unsurprising, then, that the Bahraini authorities decided to intensify the attacks on the freedom of association with the closure of Al-Wefaq.
Despite widespread condemnation by the international community, Bahraini authorities have yet to resolve these grave violations of human rights and continue to act with impunity. In February 2018, Bahrain’s court of appeals, the Court of Cassation, ruled terminally in favor of the government’s request to arbitrarily dissolve Al-Wefaq.
On today’s five-year anniversary of Al-Wefaq’s closure, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights renews its calls for the authorities in Bahrain to end the arbitrary dissolution of political and civil societies and to stop its crackdown on dissent. To do so, the Bahraini government must undertake meaningful and transparent reforms that allow political societies to resume their work without fear of prosecutorial harassment.