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We are still reeling from the events of last weekend when a series of protesters were arrested in London. The protesters, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, had liaised with the police in advance and been given the green light for their demonstration. Despite this they were arrested as soon as they turned up, with no reason given. They spent the day in jail.
This overreach by the police is, sadly, part of a broader pattern of peaceful protesters and journalists reporting on these protests being arrested, all of which has been exacerbated by the passage last week of the Public Order Act 2023 – which Index has opposed from the get-go.
Commentators have raised the alarm bell. We’re sleep walking into a dictatorship, some have said. Others have warned of the UK turning into an illiberal democracy, like Hungary. So what lessons can we learn from other places that have seen their rights to protest crumble? We asked a series of people – artists, journalists and activists – to share messages with us here.
‘Akrestsina prison wasn’t born in a day’
I read Julian Assange’s letter to King Charles III from HMP Belmarsh. I recognise the prison he describes. 1,768 political prisoners in Belarus recognise it. Thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets for peaceful protests recognise it. The name of the prison is insignificant. When I tell people in so-called “first-world countries” that I spent nine days in prison for a peaceful demonstration in Belarus, they get shocked. We come to these countries for security and protection, because we believe that the rule of law works there. Who will protect their own citizens from their state?
As I followed the news from Coronation day, I questioned: why is the smoothness of the show more important than an individual’s right for freedom of assembly? Why is it so much more important that a bill is passed to make detentions of the organisers legal. They were detained before the protest even began. I remember police in Minsk in 2020 arresting us as we walked from different parts of the city, trying to gather in one spot. I remember the Belarusian oppositional candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu being beaten up and arrested on his way to the protesters on the post-election night on 19 December 2010. I don’t remember it but I read about the opponents of Lukashenka disappearing in the 90s…
Do you think I’m dramatising and it won’t happen in the UK? Not to that extent? Akrestsina prison, this torture chamber where 53 women were kept in a cell for eight, listening to the screams of men raped with a baton on the corridor, wasn’t born in a day. It is the Frankenstein of a society which disregarded the detentions and calls of activists. Don’t let Britain become Belarus.
Hanna Komar, poet and activist from Belarus
‘Authoritarian governments are watching closely’
After Hong Kong finally lifted its last pandemic restrictions in March this year, the first protests were authorised in more than three years. Ever since coronavirus arrived in the city in January 2020, the pandemic had been used as a pretext for banning demonstrations, giving rise to absurd situations where it was legal to gather in a restaurant in a group of 12 but illegal to congregate outside in groups of more than four. Protests still happened during that time, particularly in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020, but once the Hong Kong government raised the fine for violating the four-person assembly rule to HK$5,000 (£500), many people were deterred. Nonetheless, a blind eye was turned to larger groups who turned out to support the government.
When it became legal to protest again, there were a lot of strings attached, often literally. In March protesters against a proposed land reclamation project and waste-processing facility were forced to wear number tags and walk in a cordoned-off line with heavy police presence, while the organisers had to agree not to exceed the permitted 100 participants. Another march, for women’s rights, was cancelled by organisers after police said there was a risk of violence. Former members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called off a May Day march after one of the organisers was harassed by police.
The right to protest in Hong Kong is now severely circumscribed, to the point that to do so is to invite police attention designed to deter turning out. The National Security Law has also had a chilling effect on people, who might be fearful of losing their job if they take to the streets. The Hong Kong government continues to claim there is freedom of assembly but, like many freedoms in the city these days, it is highly conditional, even hollow.
Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have moved abroad in the past few years, to Taiwan and Singapore, and also to Western countries, including the UK. For many, it is a refuge away from the deteriorating situation back home. But some are also conscious of how things are not perfect in their new adopted countries. The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its emphasis on disruption, has aspects that are similar to restrictions back in Hong Kong, while in France, many have been shocked by the brutality of the police in repressing protests against the government’s pension reform law. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is still the possibility of legal recourse against these measures, but Western countries ought to be aware how their repressive tools undermine their own criticism of governments such as China’s and Hong Kong’s. When British police arrest anti-monarchy protesters, authoritarian governments are watching closely, and are only too happy and eager to use this as a justification, however disingenuously, next time they round up protesters on their own turf.
Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, poet from Hong Kong
‘Continue standing up for your voice’
Hungary has a long history of protests. In March 1848, a group of intellectuals kicked off a demonstration against the Habsburg empire, which led to the creation of the dual monarchy after a year-long fight. In 1956, university students sparked a mass protest against the USSR, in which over 2,000 people were killed, but which ultimately resulted in a softer governance. It was a series of protests that led to the toppling of Hungary’s last socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány, too, following the leaking and broadcasting of a profane and controversial speech in 2006. A young right-wing party, Fidesz, organised multiple protests.
Ultimately, these events and Fidesz’s role contributed to the election of party chair Viktor Orbán in 2010. Since then, he has been leading the country into an increasingly anti-democratic future, including cracking down on protesters’ rights.
The country has witnessed plenty of protests since, despite increasingly strict laws and growing retaliation. In the latest, students marched against the restrictions of freedom of teachers. Two events, held one week apart in April and May, were both ended by the police spraying tear gas, in some cases directly in the faces of minors.
The popularity of these protests shows that the Hungarian youth isn’t keen on standing down and giving in to a future without voice, joining youth around the world, be it protesting against monarchy, for pensions or human rights.
Videos of this protest see visibly young people tearing down the metal fence in the Buda Castle, climbing on buildings and chanting the mantra of protests around the world: we won’t allow this.
“This shows that we got under someone’s skin, we started doing something… And maybe we will get even more under their skin,” one young protester said when asked why she persists, by the independent portal Telex.hu. Perhaps this should be a message for all protesters around the world: to continue standing up for your voice and displease those who are trying to take it away.
Lili Rutai, journalist from Hungary
Bahrain’s public prosecution on Sunday 13 November charged leading opposition politician Ebrahim Sharif under article 165 of the penal code with “inciting hatred against the regime,” after he spoke to the Associated Press last week. We, the undersigned, consider this to be a violation of his right to freedom of expression and a reprisal against his political activity.
The charge carries a three-year sentence and comes after Prince Charles’ controversial visit to the Gulf monarchy last week. It is the latest development in the Bahraini government’s intensified crackdown on civil society in the past year.
Speaking on Prince Charles’ arrival in the country Sharif, the former leader of the secular National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), told AP he was afraid the visit would “whitewash” human rights abuses.
Sharif told AP: “I don’t see what’s gone on behind closed doors or whether the prince raised any questions of human rights. Bahrain’s government values its relations with the U.K. and if the U.K. puts its weight behind the improvement of human rights in Bahrain, the government will listen. They need friends.”
He further said: “All parties should compromise. We can’t have absolute power in the hands of the ruling family.”
“Ebrahim Sharif was expressing his opinion and no one should ever be prosecuted for that,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). “Bahrain claims to be inclusive, that’s the image they tried to sell with Prince Charles’ visit. But Sharif’s prosecution reveals the barefaced lie.”
Prince Charles’ visit courted controversy, with campaigners accusing him of participating in a PR exercise aimed at hiding Bahrain’s poor human rights record. In his visit, the Prince of Wales highlighted religious tolerance in Bahrain, a theme also highlighted by visiting Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood MP, visiting the Al Fateh Grand Mosque and Bahrain’s Hindu temple, and meeting members of the country’s Jewish community. But the royal tour failed to meet with members of the Shia community, who make up a majority of Bahrain’s citizen population, and who have faced heightened discrimination from the government in the past months. In August, five UN experts called on Bahrain to end its “persecution of Shias”.
Ebrahim Sharif is the former Secretary General of Wa’ad. He was a member of the Bahrain 13, a group of high profile activists arrested, tortured and sentenced by military court in 2011. He was released in June 2015, but re-arrested weeks later and sentenced to another year in prison for a political speech he gave calling for continued peaceful opposition. Sharif was released from prison in July 2016. He is currently under a travel ban order.
At the time of Sharif’s June 2015 release, the US State Department lifted an arms ban on Bahrain, citing “meaningful progress on human rights.” However, Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior re-arrested him less than three weeks later on charges of “inciting regime change and hatred and contempt against the regime.” A court found him guilty and sentenced him to one year in prison. As a result of the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, including Sharif’s re-arrest, both the US Senate and House of Representatives introduced bipartisan legislation calling for the resumption of an arms ban on the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) and National Guard, forbidding the sale of weapons that could be used to suppress peaceful dissent. The bills would allow for the sale of arms only after the Secretary of State certifies that the Bahraini government has fully implemented all 26 recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011. As of 2016, the US State Department assessed that key recommendations of the BICI still have yet to be implemented by the Bahraini government and, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), and BIRD have found that only two of the Commission’s recommendations have been fully implemented.
“Though the Bahraini government continues to falsely claim that it has implemented all 26 BICI recommendations, virtually all independent assessments reveal a complete failure to reform on key human rights issues,”said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “The prosecution of Ebrahim Sharif for his interview with AP follows the authorities’ decision to similarly charge prominent human rights defender and BCHR president Nabeel Rajab for his open letter in the New York Times. These actions clearly demonstrate that the government remains committed to suppressing all forms of criticism.”
The Government of Bahrain’s actions violate the freedom of expression, as protected under Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain acceded to in 2006.
We condemn this violation of the right to free expression and call for the immediate dropping of all charges against Ebrahim Sharif, and all other persons prosecuted for their speech.
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)
European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)
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Prince Charles is to make an official visit to Bahrain in November despite the escalating human rights crackdown in the country. This endorsement comes after Queen Elizabeth sat next to the king of Bahrain at her 90th birthday celebrations this summer.
Last week, the UN Human Rights Council commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed grave concerns about the country: “The past decade has demonstrated repeatedly and with punishing clarity exactly how disastrous the outcomes can be when a government attempts to smash the voices of its people, instead of serving them.”
Today, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, told The Times: “The timing of Prince Charles’s visit suggests that the major human rights violations in 2016 are not in the British monarchy’s mind.”
Here are just a few things Index on Censorship would encourage the prince to keep in mind ahead of his trip:
1. The treatment of Nabeel Rajab
Human rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab, who has been arrested multiple times because of his peaceful activism, has been detained since 13 June for comments he made on Twitter. Charges brought against him for his tweets, and even retweets, include spreading “false or malicious news, statements, or rumours”, “offending a foreign country” and “offending a statutory body”.
Rajab was also recently charged with “defaming the state” after a critical op-ed he wrote appeared in The New York Times.
Just last week, the UK government was urged by a group of 50 NGOs to put pressure on Bahrain over Rajab’s treatment. With news of the state-sanctioned Prince Charles visit, it appears these calls have of fallen on deaf ears.
Rajab is expected to be sentenced at his next court hearing on 6 October. He faces more than 15 years in prison.
2. The detention of critics
The Bahraini government has repeatedly used prison as a weapon to silence its critics. Opposition activist Zainab Al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in prison in December 2014 for “insulting the king” after she ripped up a picture of him. Though she has now been released, her father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, a human rights activist and a member of the Bahrain 13, remains in prison along with over 3,500 other prisoners of conscience.
On 22 June 2011 a military court sentenced all members of the Bahrain 13 to between five years and life in prison, on trumped-up charges of attempting to overthrow the regime, “broadcasting false news and rumours” and “inciting demonstrations”. All but two of them remain behind bars.
Last year, the Liberties and Human Rights Department of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society recorded a total of 1,765 arrests by security services for reasons related to the opposition political movement, including the detention of 120 children and five women.
3. Rendering critics stateless
Another abusive tactic used by the government of Bahrain is to revoke the citizenship of many of its critics. This is illegal under several international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Regardless, 208 Bahrainis were rendered stateless in 2015 alone.
Since amending its citizenship law in 2014, Bahrain’s judges can strip citizenship from anyone convicted under anti-terrorist laws. However, the law does not properly define “terrorism” and several of those subjected to this fate in 2015 were convicted under vague terms such as “inciting and advocating regime change” to “defaming brotherly countries”.
Most of those rendered stateless have been deported, along with their families.
4. Censoring the internet
Named by Reporters Without Borders as an “enemy of the internet“, Bahrain has been busy clamping down on the web over the last few years. Despite being one of the best-connected countries in the world from a technical perspective, Freedom House gives the country an online freedom rating of 72, with 100 being the worst possible score.
News, human rights and opposition websites are routinely blocked, with estimates putting the total number at over 1,000. Social media users have been arrested and had posts forcibly removed, including those of the satirical account @Takrooz whose only post is now: “They tortured me in prison.”
The government is also working on a new Russian-inspired default search engine that would allow it to filter results without the cooperation of Western-based companies such as Netsweeper, which was exposed by the Associated Press as a facilitator of Bahrain’s censorship program.
It has been hailed as the damp squib to end damp squibs. The let down of let downs. The mother, the pearl of non-stories. Prince Charles’s “black spider” letters to various government ministers including the prime minister Tony Blair over eight months between 2004 and 2005 have elicited barely an OMG! or a WTF?, but many, many, mehs.
“Where’s the crazy stuff about homeopathy?”, we mumble. “Isn’t there supposed to be some stuff about talking to vegetables, or converting to Kaballah? Aliens? Surely some crop circles?”
Nothing. Or at least nothing worth shaking a divining rod at. One mention of herbal medicines. A hat tip to the Patagonian toothfish and the “poor old albatross”. Lots and lots of impressive detail about agricultural policy.
If anything, having scanned the letters I found myself thinking more highly of Prince Charles than previously. He clearly knows his stuff (or at least has had the good sense to employ someone who knows their stuff) and is genuinely concerned for the farming and fishing sectors.
That is not to say I am comfortable with the existence of these letters. I am a dyed-in-the-wool, though realistic, republican. That is to say, I sincerely disagree with monarchy in any form, but realise there’s not much point in going on about it in the UK. Most people seem reasonably happy with the archaic, arcane set up of the British monarchy. They’re not doing much harm, really, and doesn’t the Duchess of Cambridge have lovely hair? And none of it really matters.
Except that it does matter. The weirdness of the entire set up was exposed after the birth of Princess Charlotte in April. Royal correspondents openly spoke of her assumed lifelong role as second fiddle to her brother, George, who will one day be king.
The BBC did that thing where it reminds you that it is a state broadcaster, informing subjects about how the newborn had brought joy to the entire nation. I am not yet sufficiently misanthropic to be displeased by the birth of a child, but the whole thing had the feeling of the celebration of a successfully completed pagan ritual.
I sometimes wonder if it’s different if you were raised with this stuff: if the British are immune to the oddness of it all.
Times journalist Hugo Rifkind, a writer I admire and generally believe to be right about pretty much everything, confused me with a column after the Supreme Court’s decision that the letters should be published in which he suggested that those who wanted the letters published were guilty of taking the prince too seriously: “[The letters are] the late-night rages of Mr Angry of Highgrove,” Rifkind wrote. “They’re the green ink letters to the press. In a sane and sensible nation, they wouldn’t matter at all.”
The problem is that this isn’t a sane and sensible nation. It is a nation where, purely by birth, Charles has a constitutional role to play. In a republic, the adult first-born of a president could sent whatever letters they wanted, and we’d leave them to it. In a monarchy, you cannot just be the child of a head of state: if that role depends on lineage, then it follows that Charles, while not head of state himself, still has power. It is one thing for a head of state to have regular meetings with her prime minister, but another for her son to throw his weight around on specific policy issues, even if it is all relatively boring stuff. If the monarchy is essentially meaningless and impotent, then scrap it. If not, well, it scrapping is even more urgent.
The government must also take its share of the blame for the fiasco that led to a 10-year legal fight with The Guardian at an estimated cost of £400,000. Why such determination to block the publication of a few letters on farming? Why the panic?
One supposes that they worried not just about the monarchy (former Attorney General Dominic Grieve suggested that the release of the letters would hamper Charles’s future ability to govern), but also about the implications: freedom of information gone wild. If a newspaper can demand to see correspondence from the heir to the throne, where does it all end?
Tony Blair claimed that one of his biggest regrets in government was the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, which he claimed hampered candid conversations at cabinet level. I have some sympathy with this viewpoint, but I think the benefit of FOI has outweighed any negatives.
But now, with the publication of these old letters, ministers fear they will lose control of the freedom of information process. Hence attempts to strengthen a blanket ministerial veto on freedom of information requests. This on top of the exemption to FOI for senior royals introduced in 2011, in response to the black spider case. It’s a regressive step in an age where we keep being told of the need for open government. But that’s the mess monarchy has got us in to.
We’re not even a week into the new government, and already alarm bells are ringing over freedom of speech (with the government’s extremism plans) and freedom of information. The next few months and years will see bitter wrangling between government and civil libertarians.
If only we knew someone who would be sure that his concerned letters to ministers would be given full attention.