Bahrain's hypersensitive monarch

King Hamad: insulted at home, welcomed in Britain

It doesn't take much to upset King Hamad of Bahrain who is rapidly emerging as the most thin-skinned monarch in the Gulf. So many people have hurt the king's feelings recently that the maximum penalty for "insulting" him was increased earlier this year to seven years in jail and a fine of 10,000 Bahraini dinars ($26,600). 

According to Bahrain's General Prosecutor, 12 people have been convicted of "insulting" the king since the beginning of 2012, and human rights groups put the total number of prosecutions at 20-30. For example:

  • In 2012, Ali Abdullah Ahmad al-Hayaki was jailed for four months and had his iPhone confiscated for posting "Down with Hamad" and "May God hasten the fall of this tyrant" on Twitter.

  • Also in 2012, an online activist, who was not named, received a six-month jail sentence for "defaming" the king. His laptop and phone were confiscated.

  • In March 2013, a court sentenced 17-year-old Ali al-Shofa to a year in jail for allegedly insulting King Hamad on Twitter.

  • In May 2013, a court sentenced six activists to one year in jail for insulting King Hamad, again on Twitter. 

  • In April this year, a court reportedly sentenced Dr Saeed al-Samahiji to a year in jail for insulting the king.

Others have been convicted of insulting the army (by saying it comprises "thugs and mercenaries"), insulting the interior ministry (by saying police had failed to protect civilians from attack by an armed group) and insulting an entire town (by saying the prime minister no longer enjoyed support there).

Bahrain appears to be using "insult" laws in a rather feeble attempt to get round the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees freedom of expression. Bahrain is a party to the covenant but it claims that prosecuting people for "insults" is not a suppression of free speech.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the General Prosecutor said: "The criminalisation in article 214 of the Penal Code [relating to insults] is not concerned with political criticism, but rather with the simple injury suffered by the official [i.e the king] without regard to her/his official capacity, and with no bearing on the exercise of the lawful right to criticism." The "insult" convictions, he continued, are therefore "consistent" with the ICCPR.

Human Rights Watch disagrees:

"In the prosecutions for which Human Rights Watch has been able to identify the purportedly offending statements, those statements have been solely political (e.g. 'Down with Hamad'), with no reference to the king's 'private life'.

"The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of international human rights experts that reviews state compliance with the ICCPR, has concluded that 'the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties, albeit public figures may also benefit from the provisions of the Covenant. Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition'."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 30 May 2014