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Cablegate: Draft Law to Regulate Public Gatherings Draws

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 001808

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KDEM BA
SUBJECT: DRAFT LAW TO REGULATE PUBLIC GATHERINGS DRAWS
INTENSE CRITICISM

REF: A. MANAMA 1741
B. MANAMA 1658

Sensitive but unclassified (deliberative process); please
protect accordingly. Not for Internet distribution.

-------
Summary
-------

1. (SBU) A draft law on the regulation of public gatherings
is drawing intense criticism from civil society and members
of parliament alike. The proposed legislation establishes
new regulations and bureaucratic hurdles for those seeking to
organize public gatherings. Opponents of the measure say it
is unconstitutional and represents a reversal of the GOB's
reforms in recent years. Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid bin
Abdullah Al Khalifa said the proposed law is necessary to
protect property, prevent roadblocks, and keep "derogatory
slogans" out of demonstrations. Shia Bahrainis, who are more
likely than Sunnis to demonstrate, view the draft law as
specifically targeting them. Parliament is expected to
debate the draft law in the coming weeks. Numerous
parliamentarians have stressed they would not pass any law
that unjustly restricts freedom of expression or assembly.
End Summary.

2. (SBU) The GOB presented the draft law governing
demonstrations just days after the October 28 "car parade" in
support of human rights activist Abdul Hadi Al Khawaja that
tied up traffic in Manama for hours. Some 25 people were
arrested. The following two nights unidentified youth
attacked police vehicles and burned tires in two Shia areas
of the island (Ref B). The Interior Minister said the
measures in the proposed law are necessary to keep protests
free from property damage, roadblocks, and "derogatory
slogans."

---------------------------
Provisions of the Draft Law
---------------------------

3. (SBU) Under current laws, organizers of a public
gathering (defined as any meeting that occurs in a public or
private place which does not require an invitation to attend)
simply notify the local police station of the event. The
proposed legislation, which the government submitted to
parliament October 27, requires organizers to apply for
permission from the governor of the location where the event
will take place, and for the organizers to be residents of
that governorate. Hence, anyone organizing a demonstration
in front of parliament must be from the Capital governorate.
Marches that move from one governorate to another require
both governors' and the Interior Ministry's approval. All
printed, video or audio materials that will be distributed
must be authorized by the governor.

4. (SBU) At least three of the organizers must serve on a
committee held responsible for demonstration participants who
break the law. Anyone who organizes a public gathering
without permission faces up to two years in prison, a fine of
up to BD1000 ($2650), or both. The draft law allows
governors to delay ruling on an event until two days before
the event commences. (Note: Critics argue that this would
not give sufficient time to properly advertise gatherings.
End Note.) The sentence for participating in an unlicensed
demonstration is up to six months in prison, a BD500 ($1330)
fine, or both. Under the draft law, only Bahraini citizens
can participate in political protests.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
Negative Reactions and Commitments to Amend the Draft
--------------------------------------------- ---------

5. (SBU) Human rights activists have expressed concern about
the discretionary power given to governors under the proposed
law and say that existing laws sufficiently regulate public
gatherings. National Democratic Action Society board member
Ebrahim Alsayed and Nabeel Rajab of the dissolved Bahrain
Center for Human Rights have stated publicly that if the law
were passed in its current form, activists would "test this
law quickly" by holding unauthorized demonstrations and would
"make sure the prisons are full of people who break this
law." Members of both the Shura Council and the Nuwab have
openly vowed that they will approve the draft law only if it
is amended to ensure that the constitutional right to
assemble is protected. 37 NGOs and political societies
(organized by the opposition group Al Wifaq) drafted a
petition rejecting the law and announced plans to propose an
alternative law. The Nuwab issued a statement warning that
the Constitution prohibits anyone outside of the cabinet and
parliament from drafting and proposing legislation.

6. (SBU) According to the Ministry of Interior, the draft
law would not affect gatherings that are purely religious,
arranged by a government body, or called by official clubs or
societies to discuss internal matters (as long as only
members attend). However, many fear that under the proposed
law governors could easily restrict Shia religious
processions, which have always been a contentious issue.
Many are also concerned that the proposed law would prove to
be a large headache for the hundreds of Bahrainis who hold
frequent and informal majlises (discussion sessions) in their
homes. The Undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior,
cognizant of the widespread dissatisfaction with the proposed
law, met with the Nuwab Foreign Affairs, Defense, and
National Security Committee November 28. Members of
parliament who participated were positive about the prospects
for amending the draft law to achieve a more desirable piece
of legislation.

-------
Comment
-------

7. (SBU) Though the draft law has sparked much debate, there
seems to be a willingness among relevant parties to find a
solution. Numerous members of parliament stressed that they
would not pass any law that unjustly restricts freedom of
expression or assembly. This issue is also viewed through a
sectarian prism: Shia Bahrainis tend to demonstrate far more
often than Sunnis (Ref A), and so many view the draft law as
specifically targeting them.

8. (SBU) Comment continued: The Ambassador met recently
with the Shura Council leadership, which asked him for
guidance on how the U.S. handles laws governing
demonstrations. We passed to them information gathered by
the American Bar Association, which has a MEPI-funded rule of
law project in Bahrain.
MONROE

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