Bahrain has revoked visas issued to Human Rights Watch to attend an international parliamentary conference, the rights group said on Friday, days after raising concerns about the Gulf state’s rights record.
Visas that were issued for two members of the rights group on January 30 were cancelled on March 8 – three days before the conference starts on Saturday, HRW said.
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Bahrain, a US ally, will from Saturday host the 146th assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organisation with the motto “For democracy. For everyone”.
The IPU, which groups parliaments around the world and aims to promote democracy and human rights, said it was “aware” the visas were revoked but said it “is not responsible for the visa process, which is a sovereign decision of the host country”.
The event would have marked the first time that HRW representatives had been able to enter the Gulf state since 2012.
HRW, which holds permanent observer status with the IPU, had on Monday called for conference attendees to raise concerns about what it called “the serious repression of human rights in Bahrain”.
It also said the body should urge Bahrain to “release all those imprisoned solely for peaceful speech” and rescind laws barring political opponents from contesting elections.
There was no immediate comment from the Bahrain government.
Authorities launched a crackdown after an Arab Spring-inspired movement of largely Shia protesters hit the streets in 2011 to demand an elected government for the Gulf kingdom of some 1.4 million people.
Hundreds of demonstrators have since been jailed and opposition parties outlawed. In parliamentary elections in November, Bahrain’s two main opposition groups, the Shia Al-Wefaq and the secular Waad, were prevented from presenting candidates. These parties were dissolved in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
Bahrain’s government has said it made key reforms in recent years on human rights, criminal justice and prisoner treatment. It has also denied accusations of human rights abuses and said its elections are democratic.
Rights groups, including HRW, have criticised Bahrain for “whitewashing” or “sportswashing” its human rights record by holding international events, such as last week’s annual Formula One race, as a way of distracting from repression of political opposition.
Tirana Hassan, HRW’s acting executive director, called the visa cancellations “a blatant example of [Bahrain’s] escalating repression”.
“Bahrain’s hosting of sporting and high-level international events is a transparent attempt to launder its decades-long campaign to crush political opposition and suffocate the country’s vibrant civil society,” Hassan said in a statement.