Bahrain backs off plan to ban opposition after US criticism

The abrupt U-turn suggests that the US, which has been largely silent over the past month, still wields influence over the tiny kingdom despite its acquiescence to Saudi interests there.

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    Iranian demonstrators chant slogans in a protest against Saudi and Bahraini leaders condemning crackdown on Bahraini opposition, as one of them holds up a mocking poster of Statue of Liberty, in front of the Bahraini Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on Friday, April 15.
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Bahrain has backed off its move to dissolve the kingdom’s strongest political opposition bloc after the US criticized the decision made by its tiny ally – home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and other military installations critical to American operations in the Persian Gulf.

The Ministry of Justice and Islamic affairs announced yesterday it was seeking court approval to ban Al Wefaq, a Shiite political bloc that is the government’s strongest opposition, and the smaller Islamic Action Association. It accused both groups of violating laws and harming “social peace and national unity.”

But after the US State Department spokesman criticized the move, Bahrain’s official news agency removed the original statement and said that the ministry would wait for the outcome of current investigations before deciding to take action against the political societies. The abrupt U-turn suggests that the US, which has been largely silent over the past month, still wields influence over the tiny kingdom despite its acquiescence to Saudi interests there.

Recommended: Why US silence on Bahrain's crackdown could backfire

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Al Wefaq member Sayed Hadi AlMosawi, contacted in Manama by phone, says he believes the reversal was a direct result of US criticism.

“I think that [Bahraini officials] got the message clearly and that’s why they withdrew it,” he says. “Still we feel there is an intention to do something, but we don’t know what. The situation is not clear for us.”

State department spokesman endorsed a reversal

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that the US was “concerned” about the decision and “we would welcome them reversing this particular action.”

“These were legitimate political societies that were recognized by the government of Bahrain, especially the mainstream Shia opposition group, Al Wefaq,” he said in a briefing in Washington. “We call on the government of Bahrain to support freedom of association and expression and to foster an environment that encourages political pluralism and participation.” Political parties are outlawed in Bahrain, and they are known instead as political societies.

The US has been largely silent as Bahrain has undertaken a campaign to crush the largely Shiite protest movement that began in February calling for democratic reforms by the kingdom’s Sunni rulers.

Human rights advocates in Bahrain say that at least 31 people have died during the government crackdown. More than 400 have also been arrested, including many activists and those who spoke out against the campaign, and four of those detained have so far died in police custody. Hundreds of the Shiites have been fired from their jobs, and others are targeted at checkpoints for beatings or arrest.

US envoy headed back to Bahrain next week

While the US initially urged Bahrain's government to negotiate with the opposition, it had issued no strong condemnation of Bahrain's use of violence and intimidation since the middle of March, when Saudi Arabia sent more than 1,000 troops into Bahrain to help quell the protests.

On April 1, the State Department spokesman, in response to a reporter's question, did criticize the detention of prominent blogger Mahmood al-Yousif, and Bahrain later released him. This week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Bahrain in an address at the US-Islamic World Forum in Washington, saying, “Violence is not and cannot be the answer. A political process is – one that advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain.”

Bahrain’s original decision to close down Al Wefaq was yet another indication that the government of Bahrain was not interested in pursuing a political solution to the unrest. Al Wefaq did not organize the original protests that began Feb. 14, though it later supported them, and it never called for the overthrow of the ruling family as some protesters did.

The group was in contact in March with US envoy Jeffrey Feltman, who was trying to bring the government and opposition to the table for dialogue. That effort failed when Saudi troops were called into the country on March 14 to help put down the uprising. Mr. Feltman, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, will head back to Bahrain next week.

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