12 December 2016 – An appeals court today upheld the arbitrary 9-year sentence against opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman following an extended and flawed re-trial. The Bahraini government ordered a retrial of the leader of Al-Wefaq in October, but these free expression-related convictions upheld today reflect Bahrain’s continued failure to adhere to international standards of human rights. It comes days after the UK Prime Minister, UK Foreign Secretary and US Defence Secretary were in Bahrain for security talks. We, the undersigned, condemn Sheikh Ali Salman’s imprisonment on politically motivated charges related to free expression and call for his immediate release.

Sheikh Ali Salman is the leader of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest political group in the country. He was arrested in December 2014 and in June 2015, a criminal court sentenced him to four years in prison on a litany of charges including inciting hatred against the regime. In his initial trial, the court acquitted him on the more serious charge of inciting revolution.

The prosecution appealed his acquittal, and on 30 May 2016 the higher appeals court changed its previous decision, convicting him of inciting revolution and increasing his sentence to nine years. Specifically, the court sentenced him to 7 years on the three charges of “inciting change of the regime,” “inciting hatred against a sector of society,” “inciting criminal activities,” and sentenced him to 2 years on a fourth charge of “insulting a statutory body.” This decision came on the day former Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond visited Bahrain and met with the country’s King, where he publicly praised Bahrain’s”commitment to continuing reforms”. The Court of Cassation ordered today’s retrial of the appeal in October 2016, which reconfirmed the May 2016 judgement.

The United Nation Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) declared Sheikh Salman was arbitrarily detained by the Bahraini government. The decision, which cites both free expression and due process concerns, requests that the Bahraini government release Sheikh Salman immediately, and provide him with an enforceable right to compensation against the government.

Al Wefaq is the largest political party in the country and won over 60% of the vote in the 2010 General Election, winning 18 of 40 seats, and which was recently dissolved by the Bahraini government. Al Wefaq’s 18 MPs resigned from the largely powerless National Assembly in protest of the Bahraini government’s violent response to Arab Spring protests in 2011, and subsequently participated in reconciliation dialogues with the government. However, these dialogues collapsed in 2014, and Al Wefaq’s opposition bloc chose to boycott that year’s general election, the first after the Arab Spring. Sheikh Ali Salman’s arrest came just a month after the November 2014 elections.

The Bahraini Ministry of Justice ordered the dissolution of Al-Wefaq following court proceedings in June 2016. The society’s accounts have been frozen and physical property repossessed. In September, the government announced it would liquidate Al-Wefaq’s property at auction, but has yet to carry out these measures.

In addition to Al-Wefaq and Sheikh Ali Salman, the Bahraini government has targeted additional opposition political figures and societies. Fadhel Abbas, the Secretary-General of Al-Wahdawi, is serving a 3-year prison sentence for calling the Saudi war in Yemen, in which Bahrain is a belligerent, unconstitutional. The National Democratic Action Society – Wa’ad – has been under threat, with their leader banned from travel and repeatedly subject to police questioning in the past year. Ebrahim Sharif, the former Secretary General of Wa’ad, served 4 years in prison following his arrest, torture and prosecution by military court in 2011; he served another year in prison after he called for sustained peaceful opposition in July 2015, and was charged again in November 2015 after he criticised Prince Charles of the United Kingdom’s visit to Bahrain. These latest charges were dropped following pressure from the United Kingdom.

The government has subjected major political leaders to repeated judicial harassment since before 2011. Among those currently imprisoned are most members of the “Bahrain 13” – a group of high-profile political leaders and activists, including Hassan Mushaima, leader of the Haq Movement. Like Ebrahim Sharif, an original member of the Bahrain 13, authorities arrested, tortured, and prosecuted these activists on politically-motivated charges. A military court convicted the Bahrain 13 in 2011, and a civil appeals courts upheld the sentences in 2012.

International Context

The court’s decision to sentence Sheikh Ali Salman to 9 years in prison comes days after two major security conferences held in Bahrain. Last week, UK Prime Minister Theresa May was in Bahrain for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Leaders Summit. She did not raise human rights concerns in her speech, instead telling GCC leaders: “I want to leave no-one in any doubt about the scale of my ambition or the extent of my determination to establish the strongest possible trading relationships between the UK and the Gulf.”

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was also in Bahrain for a separate security forum, the Manama Dialogue, during which he declared that “Britain is back from East of Suez”, alluding to the UK’s colonial past in Bahrain. He also failed to address human rights.

Additionally, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also travelled to the Manama Dialogue and met with Bahrain’s King Hamad last week. While the US has previously called for Sheikh Ali Salman’s release, the Secretary of Defense does not appear to have raised the case during his visit.

The Bahraini government is empowered by its allies’ continued silence in the face of escalating repression. The penal code criminalises free expression by setting punishments for, among other ‘crimes’, “insulting statutory bodies”, “insulting the King” and “insulting the flag of Bahrain” – legislation that the authorities have used to restrict nearly all independent activities relating to politics, civil society, and human rights.

NGO Condemnation

Bahrain has violated Sheikh Ali Salman’s freedom from arbitrary detention, right to a fair trial, and right to political participation, as defined under articles 2, 9 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and articles 9, 14, 25 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

We, the undersigned, condemn this upheld sentence and call on Bahrain to:

  • Release Sheikh Ali Salman immediately, dropping all charges
  • Reverse the decision to dissolve Al-Wefaq
  • Halt the harassment of political and civil society figures in Bahrain
  • Release all political prisoners

We call on Bahrain’s allies, the United Kingdom and United States to:

  • Condemn Sheikh Ali Salman’s unfair trial and call for his release
  • Call for the release of all political prisoners
  • Use political leverage to the benefit of human rights in Bahrain

Signed,

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy
European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights