The Sunni-led monarchy in Bahrain announced plans recently for a national dialogue among major political groups. Manama was criticized for a crackdown in 2011 protesters but said it was committed to reforms recommended by an independent panel of inquiry.
Joe Stork, deputy director of Middle East programs for Human Rights Watch, said from Beirut that the monarchy in 2012 prioritized "repression over reform."
"This year the government needs to act on its reform rhetoric by setting free all peaceful protesters, including the protest leaders still serving long prison terms for exercising their right to free speech and peaceful assembly," he said in a statement.
Late last year, the monarchy placed temporary restrictions on public protests and stripped the citizenship of several opposition leaders. A number of protesters were arrested following protests last week.
"In 2012, the government shifted from talking about reforms to silencing critical voices, banning demonstrations, and restricting access to independent journalists and rights organizations," said Stork. "These actions thoroughly discredit claims by Bahraini authorities of respecting human rights."
Human Rights Watch published its 665-page World Report 2013 on Thursday.