Bahrain is quietly heading towards a ‘total suppression of human rights’

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SHAFAQNA – Secular opposition party dissolved by court order and five dead in protests as ruling family cracks down on dissent

Overshadowed by the influence of its wealthier neighbours and the drama of the massive conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain has nonetheless been plagued by unrest since the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

Dozens of pro-democracy protesters were killed in the initial uprising against the anti-Shia government; perfunctory attempts by the regime to start a dialogue with activists failed after government infighting about how best to deal with the problem.

While the new political opposition became less vocal in the wake of successive crackdowns, it has never really gone away, instead morphing into increasingly sectarian movements.

Moderate ministers have time and again promised constitutional reform – as well as investigations into allegations of torture – but little in the way of legislation has actually passed.

This week, the High Civil Court ordered the dissolution of the main secular opposition party, the National Democratic Action Society (Waad), on terrorism charges, in a sign that the government may be trying to do away with opposition altogether.

The accusations levelled at the group included violating the law by describing three men executed earlier this year for killing police officers as “martyrs”, expressing solidarity with outlawed Shia political party Wefaq and declaring Bahrain’s 2002 constitution “illegitimate”.

The move comes on top of the banning of Wefaq last year and the revoking of the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim – the kingdom’s most prominent Shia cleric – and escalating clashes between protesters and police.

Five demonstrators were killed and 300 arrested when police broke up a peaceful sit-in at Sheikh Qassim’s house on 23 May.

Last month, a government advisory body passed a constitutional amendment which means civilians suspected of attacking security forces can be tried in military courts.

Amnesty International has called the latest crackdown “baseless and absurd”.

“By banning major political opposition groups, Bahrain is now heading towards total suppression of human rights,” said Lynn Maalouf of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa office.

“The suspension of Waad is a flagrant attack on freedom of expression and association, and further proof that the authorities have no intention of delivering on promises of human rights progress.”

The international community has been noticeably silent on Bahrain’s rights issues, and the country receives little English-language media attention.

“The government of Bahrain is acting with the aim of totally silencing all peaceful voices, leaving open the alternative of underground opposition and violence,” said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

As Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently: “This is a pressure cooker, and the pressure will build as long as legitimate grievances exist – and grow. And they will.”

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