Beyond the Bubble

By Isabelle Dietz

On Oct. 20 the Bahrain government issued a temporary ban on all public rallies and gatherings, citing recent episodes of violence in the West Asian country. Bahrain, which has been trying to control mass protests since the Arab uprisings in spring 2011, has come under criticism from the international community, human rights groups and opposition activists for this ban.

Protests in Bahrain have mainly been in response to the ruling Sunni monarchy’s unwavering grip on political power and systematic discrimination against the island nation’s majority Shiite population. The government of Bahrain maintains that the ban is temporary and is in response to deaths of protesters and policeman in recent violent demonstrations. This is not the first time the government has cracked down in this manner — public protests were also banned last March when the king declared a state of emergency that stayed in effect until June 1.

Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa justified the new ban, and claimed that the privilege of holding rallies and gatherings had been “abused repeatedly by organizers’ violations and the participants’ lack of commitment to the legal regulations.”

The interior minister also cited the violent nature of recent protests, the disturbance of private and public facilities and the threat to public safety that the protests posed as justification for the ban.

The minister also added that the ban on public protests would remain until it was ensured that national unity and a strong social fabric were maintained.

Many international human rights groups have publicly condemned the Bahranian government’s decision. Amnesty International has been vocal on the issue, and asserted that the ban is a violation of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as noted in Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty International has called for the ban to be immediately lifted.

“Even in the event of sporadic or isolated violence once an assembly is underway, the authorities cannot simply declare a blanket prohibition on all protests. Such a sweeping measure amounts to nothing less than nullifying the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly,” said Middle East and North Africa Programme Deputy Director at Amnesty International Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui on Oct. 30. “Law enforcement officials must act to protect peaceful protesters rather than using the violent acts of a few as a pretext to restrict or impede the rights of all.”

In the past few months, Amnesty International has adopted several Bahranian Prisoners of Conscience, jailed solely for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, including noted  activist Zainab Al-Khawaja, charged with tearing up a picture of Bahrain’s king. Amnesty International has repeatedly urged the Bahrainian government to free these prisonors.

U.S. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have both expressed “deep concern” about the ban, along with Great Britain.

A spokesperson for Ban Ki-moon on Nov. 1 announced that the Secretary General “reaffirms his belief that there needs to be an all inclusive and meaningful national dialogue that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis, as this is the only way towards greater stability and prosperity for all Bahrainis”.