27 October 2016 – The Government of Bahrain yesterday decreased the sentence of Fadhel Abbas, former Secretary-General of the al-Wahdawi Political Society. Courts originally sentenced Abbas to five years in prison, following a June 2015 conviction on charges violating Abbas’ right to free expression. However, following his appeal, a court has now reduced Abbas’ sentence from five years to three years in prison.

We, the undersigned, condemn the imprisonment of Fadhel Abbas for exercising his right to free expression and call on the Government of Bahrain to ensure his immediate release.

On 26 March 2015, the Government of Bahrain arrested Abbas for public statements made by the al-Wahdawi Political Society condemning the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition in Yemen. Authorities claimed that such statements “attempted to exploit the situation through division.” Abbas’ trial before the High Criminal Court commenced on 27 April 2015, and the court issued its final verdict on 28 June 2015, sentencing Abbas to five years in prison on charges of “spreading false information.” Abbas appealed the sentence, and his first appellate trial took place on 11 October 2015. The authorities did not allow him to be present.

“The Bahraini government’s decision to arrest and imprison Fadhel Abbas for public statements about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a clear violation of his rights to freedom of speech,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “The peaceful expression of criticism or political opinion is a criminal act in Bahrain, and the authorities continue to demonstrate that they will systematically target anyone who speaks out against government abuses.”

Abbas is just one of many political activists, human rights defenders, and religious leaders prosecuted by the Government of Bahrain for voicing their opinion. In June 2016, Bahraini authorities arrested human rights defender and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab for tweets. Authorities charged Rajab with “disseminating false rumors in a time of war,” “insulting a neighboring country,” and “insulting a statutory body” under articles 133, 215 and 216 of the penal code. The charges, which could garner a 15-year prison sentence, stem from tweets in which he criticized the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and documented systematic torture in Bahrain’s Jau Prison. After the New York Times published an editorial by Rajab in September, the authorities brought an additional charge of “undermining the prestige of the state” that could add another year to Rajab’s sentence. Rajab’s next hearing will be on 31 October 2016, when the court could sentence him to up to 15 years in prison.

The Government of Bahrain has also prosecuted the leaders of other political societies on charges related to free expression. In December 2014, Bahraini authorities arrested Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of the now-dissolved Al-Wefaq Political Society, for delivering speeches in which he peacefully criticized the government. Courts originally sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman to four years in prison. However, in May 2016, following the prosecution’s appeal, judges reversed Sheikh Ali Salman’s previous acquittal on a charge of attempting to “overthrow” the government. Finding him guilty on the previously-acquitted charge, the court increased his total prison sentence to nine years. On 17 October, the Court of Cassation ordered a retrial for Sheikh Ali Salman on the same charges. Over the summer 2016, the Government of Bahrain closed Al-Wefaq Political Society and auctioned off the organization’s assets.

Bahraini authorities have also targeted former Secretary-General of Waad Political Society, Ebrahim Sharif. Authorities have repeatedly arrested Sharif on charges that violate his right to free expression. Most recently, Bahraini officials arrested Sharif on 12 July 2015 for charges related solely to a speech in which he peacefully criticized the government. A court sentenced him to one year in prison. That arrest came just three weeks after Sharif had served time for a previous sentence stemming from his involvement in the 2011 pro-democracy movement. Though Sharif completed his one-year term and is now out of prison, the prosecution is reportedly seeking to appeal in order to increase the original sentence, in a move mirroring the increased sentence against Sheikh Ali Salman. Sharif’s next hearing is scheduled for 7 November 2016.

The charges against Fadhel Abbas, Nabeel Rajab, Sheikh Ali Salman, and Ebrahim Sharif violate their rights to free expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty to which Bahrain acceded in 2006. Under Article 19 of the ICCPR, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression… regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of [their] choice.” Additionally, Recommendation 1722(h) of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), whose proposed reforms King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa claims have been fully implemented, calls on the Government of Bahrain to drop charges and commute sentences of all persons convicted of crimes related to free speech. On the contrary, the government continues to punish activists and human rights defenders for exercising their basic human rights to free expression, assembly, and association.

The undersigned organizations call on the Government of Bahrain to:

  • Immediately release Fadhel Abbas, Nabeel Rajab, and Sheikh Ali Salman, and drop all charges against them, as they violate the right to freedom of expression;
  • End the judicial harassment of Ebrahim Sharif for charges that violate his rights to freedom of expression;
  • Release all prisoners of conscience who are currently imprisoned for charges related to their free expression, assembly, and association.

Signed,

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR)
Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD)
European Center for Democracy & Human Rights (ECDHR)