Janessa Schilmoeller NAMIBIA – Bahrain’s government has proposed an amendment to increase punishments for anyone found guilty of insulting the Gulf nation’s king just one week before the nation hosts the Formula One Grand Prix. According to state media, on Sunday Bahrain’s cabinet proposed an amendment to Article 214 of the Penal Code, implementing a […]
NAMIBIA – Bahrain’s government has proposed an amendment to increase punishments for anyone found guilty of insulting the Gulf nation’s king just one week before the nation hosts the Formula One Grand Prix.
According to state media, on Sunday Bahrain’s cabinet proposed an amendment to Article 214 of the Penal Code, implementing a 5-year prison term and a maximum $26,000 (U.S. dollars) fine for offending King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, the country’s flag or other national symbols.
The amendment, endorsed by newly-appointed deputy Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, was referred to the National Assembly for approval.
Amnesty International called the amendment a new attempt to crush dissent ahead of the Grand Prix race, which has been met by large-scale anti-government protests over the past two years.
“Increasing the punishment for criticism of Bahrain’s King is a further attempt to muzzle activists ahead of the upcoming Grand Prix,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa programme director at Amnesty International.
“The authorities’ reliance on a vaguely worded criminal ‘offence’ to avoid scrutiny of their record says a lot about their own failures and lack of commitment to reform.
“Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Bahraini authorities to repeal articles of the Penal Code used to criminalize freedom of expression, including Article 214, which this measure would amend to increase the punishment to up to five years in prison,” Sahraoui said.
Grand Prix crackdown already underway
Security forces on Wednesday fired tear gas to disperse protesters demanding the cancellation of the Grand Prix. Protesters stood outside of the secondary school of a student believed to have been arbitrarily arrested in the government’s attempt to eliminate troublemakers ahead of the race.
Bahraini authorities have stepped up efforts in the past month to counter unrest that has occurred in the Gulf nation on an almost daily basis for the past two years. Clashes between protesters and security forces have intensified over the past few weeks, with dozens of protesters reportedly arrested by plain-clothed security officers.
Activists estimate at least 50 demonstrators have been arrested in the past two weeks, including Hussain Abdul Amir, who was taken from his home at 2 a.m.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the arrests were made without warrants and that those detained were denied legal assistance during their initial formal interrogations.
According to Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East director, the “raids and detentions suggest that officials are more concerned with getting activists out of circulation for the Formula 1 race than with addressing the legitimate grievances that have led so many Bahrainis to take to the streets.”
Protesters, mainly from the country’s Shia majority, have crowded the streets since 2011 in groups as large as hundreds of thousands at a time to demand a transition to democracy and an end to widespread discrimination under the Al-Khalifa government — a Sunni monarchy that has ruled the country since 1783.
As many as 80 protesters are believed to have been killed since protests broke out two years ago.
“Instead of responding to the uprising of February 2011, the last two years have seen continued killings, arbitrary arrests and alleged torture in Bahrain,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International.
“The authorities are trying to use the Grand Prix as a platform to show progress, with claims that the human rights situation has improved, whilst stepping up repression in order to ensure nothing disturbs their public image,” said Amnesty International’s Sahraoui.
Calls for cancellation ignored
Amnesty International expects protests this week to outnumber last year’s Grand Prix demonstrations, during which one activist was killed by security forces and 300 others were arrested.
The Grand Prix, a major sports spectacle watched by millions across the world, has been targeted for the past two years by protesters hoping to garner international attention around human rights abuses committed by the Khalifa monarchy.
The 2011 Grand Prix was canceled because of the widespread demonstrations, which drew more than 100,000 protesters leading up to the scheduled event. Thirty-five people were killed when a coalition of Bahraini and Saudi Arabian troops were called in to quell the pro-democracy uprising.
Four Bahraini NGOs, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Bahrain Press Association, sent a letter Monday requesting that the Formula One team rethink its commitment to the 2013 Grand Prix.
NGOs stressed that “If the race goes ahead, it will be taking place in a country whose government continues to commit gross human rights violations, from arbitrary arrests to torture.”
The letter called last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix an “embarrassment to the sport,” used by Bahrain’s government “to broadcast a false picture of normality to the outside world, whilst also preventing entry to journalists who wanted to see the reality on the ground.”
A group of British MPs also called for the Bahrain Grand Prix to be canceled this week in a letter to Formula One boss, Bernie Ecclestone.
In a letter signed by 20 British MPS, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democracy in Bahrain warned Ecclestone that “most democratic-minded people would be appalled if you allowed the Bahrain leg of the Formula 1 championship to go ahead amidst the most atrocious human rights violations.”
Formula One officials plan to go ahead with the race. While Ecclestone said he was “extremely sympathetic” to the opposition in Bahrain, he told the AFP news agency: “There’s no reason why [the race] shouldn’t be [a success].”
Protests organized by various political groups will continue throughout the remainder of the week in hopes of persuading Ecclestone to change his mind and draw attention to the need for political reform in Bahrain.