During his brief period as Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi sought to suppress criticism by prosecuting citizens for the "crime" of "insulting the president." In fact he prosecuted more cases than all his predecessors back to King Farouk had done, something I blogged about here critically last January.
Bahrain is now trying the same maneuver. On November 18, the Shura Council set a minimum sentence of one year and a maximum of seven, plus fines. A new report from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights entitled "Limited Freedom Of Expression In Bahrain:Arrested For Insulting The King" says that there were thirty prosecutions in 2013 for this "crime."
There are three problems with this statute. First, it is ambiguous: the law only says “A prison sentence shall be the penalty for any person who offends the emir of the country...." But what is an insult to the King? Does a speech criticizing his handling of public affairs "offend" him? A speech condemning him for human rights abuses? A speech criticizing him for failing to fire his uncle the prime minister? Slogans at a demonstration? It is unfair to imprison people when the bounds of acceptable criticism are in fact unknown.
Second, the statute violates free speech rights that Bahrain has agreed to protect under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The King himself handled it this way in an interview in Der Spiegel in 2012:
SPIEGEL: Your Majesty, what would happen if we were to shout: "Down with the King?"
Hamad: They do shout it on the streets. As I emphasized in my speech last year, this is not a reason to imprison someone. It’s just a case of manners. But when they shout: "Down with the king and up with Khomeini," that’s a problem for national unity.
By that standard the King should be protesting the abuse of the statute to imprison people who "offend" him so long as they do not then shout their loyalty to Iran. In the thirty cases from 2013, there is no evidence (as I understand the cases) that people added statements about Iran to their criticism of the King.
The third problem with the statute is practical: it won’t work. Bahrain is in a political crisis that can only be ended by negotiations between political groups representing the populace, which is majority Shia, and the royal family (which is Sunni) and the broader Sunni community. It won’t be ended by fiat, by imprisoning critics, or by passing laws that jail people for "offending the emir." In fact that sort of action by the government only exacerbates divisions and tensions, which indeed have been getting worse in Bahrain. Respect for the King will not be created by new laws demanding respect for the King, but by actions he takes to solve Bahrain’s crisis and respect the rights of all citizens. I am fully aware that there is a deep fear of Iranian subversion in Bahrain, and that some acts of protest can cross the line into actual criminal behavior--in Bahrain as everywhere. But if the government of Bahrain cannot distinguish between genuine protest and foreign subversion, and responds to criticism with jail sentences, one can only expect that 2014 will be even worse than 2013 for human rights and domestic stability.