UN voices concern over Bahrain crackdown on freedom of expression, right to nationality

Supporters hold posters with photo of Bahrain's leading Shi'ite cleric Isa Qassim during a sit-in outside his home in the village of Diraz west of Manama, Bahrain June 21, 2016. © Hamad I Mohammed
The UN is concerned about Bahrain’s ongoing crackdown on expression and condemned the authorities for revoking its citizens’ nationality. The statement comes after the kingdom stripped a leading Shiite cleric’s citizenship for “serving foreign interests.”

“It is unfortunate that instead of pressing forward with the recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was appointed by the King in 2011, the government has instead sought to undermine the enjoyment of civil and political rights in the country,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said

Shamdasani urged the government to protect civil society activists from intimidation or reprisals for their work.

“We call on the government to take immediate confidence-building measures, including the release of all those who have been detained for the exercise of their human rights,” she added.

According to the OHCHR spokesperson, there appears to be a “media campaign against human rights defenders” in Bahrain. He added the authorities have imposed travel bans on other rights defenders.

Late last month, the monarchy increased the prison sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, to nine years from the original four that he was serving after been initially convicted in 2015. The monarchy then went on to suspend Al Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group.

This was followed on Monday by stripping top Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim of his citizenship. He now faces deportation. Qassim was instrumental in backing the mass protest movement in the country. The government, however, ruled that the cleric used his position to "serve foreign interests" and promote "sectarianism and violence."

“He is the latest of at least 250 people who have had their nationalities revoked since July 2014,” she said.

READ MORE: Bahrain strips top Shiite cleric of nationality over promoting 'sectarianism and violence’

Shamdasani also noted that human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was arrested on June 13 for spreading false news and rumors about the internal situation in a bid to discredit Bahrain. Rajab has organized numerous protests against the Bahraini regime since 2011 and has been in and out of jail on numerous occasions. He was charged for tweets insulting the government in most cases.

READ MORE: Bahrain re-arrests top human rights activist Nabeel Rajab – family

A number of countries have expressed concern over the citizenship fiasco.

"We remain deeply troubled by the government of Bahrain's practice of withdrawing the nationality of its citizens arbitrarily," said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archrival in the region, has even warned of armed resistance over the incident.

"Surely they know that the aggression against Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim is a red line... that will leave no option for the people but to resort to armed resistance," Qassem Suleimani, head of the elite Revolutionary Guards' overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, told state media late on Monday.

Bahrain, an island kingdom, has been repeatedly criticized for suppressing basic freedoms. According to such groups as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the kingdom continues to imprison activists arbitrarily and torture them.

Anti-government protests have been taking place in Bahrain since the start of the Arab Spring uprising. The kingdom, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet, brutally cracked down on a popular uprising in 2011. The majority Shiite population of Bahrain complains of discrimination and lack of democracy in the oil-rich kingdom, while the Sunni monarchy often accuses its archrival Iran – a Shiite powerhouse – of instigating unrest in the country.