Although Bahrain’s political unrest has been woefully under-reported by the Western media, the regime’s harsh silencing of opposition figures has kept it high on the agenda of human rights organisations. In February 2011, pro-democracy demonstrators occupied Pearl Roundabout, a prominent landmark in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. A month later, King Hamad declared a state of emergency and brought in security forces to drive out the protesters. At least sixty were killed, hundreds injured and thousands jailed. Subsequently, a number of opposition activists, writers and bloggers received heavy prison sentences in violation of their right to free expression and association.
On 22 June 2011, human rights activists Dr Abduljalil al-Singace and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja were among 21 peaceful dissidents convicted by a special security court of ‘plotting to overthrow the government’. Sentences ranged from between two years and life in prison on charges including ‘setting up terror groups to topple the royal regime and change the constitution’. Al-Singace and al-Khawaja were each sentenced to life imprisonment after reporting on human rights abuses in the country and calling for political reform.
According to Human Rights Watch, the evidence offered against the activists ‘related almost entirely to peaceful political activities and raised serious due process issues as well’. Much of the evidence consisted of public political statements such as recorded speeches, media interviews, and writings found on their computers and websites.
A respected Bahraini academic, al-Singace was previously detained in 2010 for criticising Bahrain’s human rights record on his return from a conference in London (LR, October 2010). He and 22 others were arrested and accused of being members of a ‘sophisticated terrorist network operating with international support’. Following the February 2011 street demonstrations, King Hamad ordered the release of the 23 defendants, effectively ending the prosecution, but al-Singace and 10 others were rearrested shortly afterwards.
Al-Khawaja is another outspoken critic of Bahrain’s ruling Sunni royal family. Before his arrest, he had told the BBC that he had deliberately stayed away from Pearl Roundabout. ‘I don’t want to give the authorities any reason to arrest me,’ he said. Following the trial, at which he was charged with advocating ‘the overthrow of the regime, a willingness to sacrifice, disobedience, a general strike, and marches’, he staged a 110-day hunger strike in protest. He called this off in May 2012, when Bahrain’s highest court referred his conviction and those of the twenty other activists to the criminal court of appeal. Hopes were raised when the official Bahrain News Agency reported that the retrial would hear ‘testimony from prosecution and defense witnesses … as if it is a new trial’.
Disappointingly, however, on 4 September 2012, the High Court of Appeal in Bahrain confirmed the convictions of the 13 human rights defenders already serving time in prison and 7 tried in absentia. Al-Khawaja was acquitted of the charge of participating in a plot to overthrow the regime but his sentence was not amended.
PEN and other human rights organisations believe that the charges against the 21 dissidents are politically motivated and continue to lobby for their release. They are further concerned that the defendants were tortured in pre-trial detention in order to coerce ‘confessions’ from them. There has been no investigation into the torture allegations, which were detailed in some of the statements made by al-Khawaja and other prisoners of conscience at the beginning of the appeal process. Al-Khawaja claimed he had spent two months in solitary confinement and was denied access to a lawyer. He also alleged that he was sexually assaulted and regularly beaten by guards. Amnesty reported that his conviction was based on a confession he made under duress, and no evidence was presented showing he had used or advocated violence during the mass protests.
According to PEN, leading lawyers who observed the appeal pointed out several other legal violations: not all the defence witnesses were heard; new lawyers were assigned against the will of the defendants and in violation of their constitutional rights; the confessions that were extracted under torture were not dismissed; and the last few hearings were held in secret, with a gag order on the press. Amnesty called the verdict ‘outrageous’, adding that it is ‘another blow to justice and it shows once more that the Bahraini authorities are not on the path of reform’.
Readers might like to send appeals: protesting the decision by the High Court of Appeal in Bahrain to uphold the harsh sentences against Dr Abduljalil al-Singace and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and others solely for peacefully exercising their right to free expression; calling for the immediate release of al-Singace, al-Khawaja and their co-defendants; demanding a full independent investigation into allegations that both men have been tortured and ill-treated in detention; urging the Bahraini authorities to abide by their obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and to release all those currently detained in Bahrain solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
Fax: 00 973 176 64 587
Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa, Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs
Fax: 00 973 175 31 284
HE Ambassador Ms Alice Thomas Samaan
Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain
30 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8QB
Fax: +44 (0)20 7201 9183
Update: Just before his death on 20 August 2012, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi pardoned two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, imprisoned last year for ‘supporting terrorism’ (LR, February 2012). They were released from prison on 11 September. Our thanks to all readers who sent appeals.