Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Bahrain political groups must ask permission to see foreign officials

New measure requiring government officials to be present in meetings between political groups and foreign representatives prompts criticism from the UK and opposition figures in Bahrain. Elizabeth Dickinson reports
Opposition groups fear ruling may limit political freedom

Gulf Correspondent

ABU DHABI // Bahrain's government has issued a new resolution prohibiting political groups from holding meetings with foreign governments, diplomats and overseas organisations without official approval.

The resolution said groups must contact the foreign ministry three days before they plan to hold a meeting, and that a representative from the Bahraini government must be present.

The new rules were first announced on September 4 but the full details were provided by Bahrain's justice minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa, on Wednesday.

They require political groups to coordinate all their contacts with "diplomatic missions and consulates in the kingdom and representatives of foreign governments" through the foreign ministry, Bahrain's state news agency said.

Mr Al Khalifa said the changes were recommended by Bahrain's national assembly. In late July, the body held a special session to discuss security and issued a series of recommendations, later adopted by the King, toughening penalties for crimes related to terrorism.

The body also said the government should request "ambassadors to Bahrain not to interfere in the kingdom's domestic affairs".

The statement was believed by many analysts at the time to have been directed at the United States embassy, which has faced sharp criticism from Sunni politicians for its condemnation of the government's human-rights record.

Earlier in the summer, several pro-government political groups organised a petition calling for the US ambassador in Bahrain to be replaced, arguing he had held meetings with opposition groups and was biased in his outlook.

But opposition parties and some diplomatic missions feared the new rules could sharply limit the freedoms of political groups to engage with the international community.

A British embassy spokesperson said yesterday the mission was seeking "urgent clarification on the implications of this policy".

"We are concerned by the government of Bahrain's announcement on limiting the freedom of political societies to engage with international organisations and diplomatic missions", the spokesperson said.

The US deputy assistant secretary of state, Barbara Leaf, said Washington had concerns about the new decree, which "would restrict political society engagement with foreign governments and international organisations".

Ms Leaf concluded a trip to Bahrain on Tuesday,

The rules send "two messages: one to the international community, and one to the opposition," said Abduljalil Khalil Ebrahim, the former parliamentary bloc leader for the largest opposition society, Al Wefaq.

The government "doesn't want diplomats to sit with the opposition or any key figures in Bahrain," he said, adding that he thought the moves were also aimed at preventing political groups from sharing concerns about alleged human-rights abuses with international organisations.

The measures could threaten the country's national dialogue, a forum aimed at calming tensions on the island. Unrest in Bahrain flared in 2011, when protesters from the country's Shiite majority called for an end to what they argued was their economic and political discrimination.

Opposition groups protested against the new rules by boycotting a session of the dialogue on September 4.

"The crisis in Bahrain has reached dangerous levels as a result of the restrictions on public freedoms, and the opposition's political action in particular," the opposition groups said at the time.

Frustrated with the slow pace of discussions, along with the new regulations, Mr Ebrahim said political societies were meeting this week to "review their participation" in the dialogue.

edickinson@thenational.ae

Updated: September 12, 2013 04:00 AM

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