19 May 2017 – Bahrain’s Fourth High Criminal Court will reconvene on Sunday, 21 May, to hold the 13th trial in the case against the country’s most prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassim. The Bahraini government arbitrarily denaturalized Sheikh Isa Qassim in June 2016. The authorities are charging Sheikh Isa Qassim with alleged money laundering along with two others, Sheikh Hussain al-Qassab and Mirza al-Dirazi. We, the undersigned organizations, strongly condemn the Bahraini government’s arbitrary revocation of Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship and the charges against him, Sheikh al-Qassab, and al-Dirazi.

Ahead of the previous hearing on 7 May 2017, several US-based NGOs that work on international religious freedom issues sent a letter to Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s king, urging the government to drop all charges against Sheikh Isa Qassim and reinstate his citizenship. Additionally, a group of international NGOs sent letters to the heads of state of the US, the UK, the EU, and to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, asking officials to publicly call on the Bahraini government to drop the charges against the three defendants. To date, the organizations have received no response to any of these letters.

The trial of Sheikh Isa Qassim on Sunday will occur while US President Trump visits Saudi Arabia. At a summit convened by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, the president is predicted to address ways for Muslim countries to cultivate religious tolerance. “While President Trump talks to Muslim leaders, including GCC officials, in Saudi Arabia about religious tolerance, the Bahraini government at the same time is promoting religious intolerance,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “The Bahraini authorities, by denaturalizing and prosecuting Sheikh Isa Qassim for religious practices, have shown they will criminalize actions of individuals based solely on religion. This will only continue to cause further instability in the country.”

During the 7 May hearing, the lead judge in the case, Ali al-Dhahrani, was absent from the proceedings. Judge al-Dhahrani, son of a previous Shura Council leader, Khalifa Ahmed al-Dhahrani, is the head of the Fourth High Criminal Court and has a documented history of presiding over trials with vast due process violations. Al-Dhahrani ruled on cases heard in the 2011 National Safety Courts and has dismissed testimonies stating that torture was used to extract coerced confessions from defendants. Al-Dhahrani has allowed coerced confessions to be admitted as evidence in cases. In September 2013, al-Dhahrani led the Court in the conviction of 50 defendants, including human rights defenders, on politically-motivated terror charges. His court has also rendered many stateless under the anti-terrorism law.

Presiding in the absence of al-Dhahrani at the 7 May hearing were three Egyptian judges – Osama al-Shaadhaly as head judge, with Wael Ibrahim and Saber Jumaa. Witnesses reported increased security on the day of the hearing. Authorities reportedly prevented cars from stopping around the building and heavily searched individuals before permitting them to enter the courtroom. Authorities barred some individuals from entering the courtroom to observe the trial; witnesses reported that entrance was mainly limited to diplomats, state media, and government officials. Attendants also reported that 12 diplomatic officials were present in the court. One government-appointed defense lawyer, Abdulrahman Khashram, was present at the hearing.

Background on the Case

The Bahraini government first announced that it had unilaterally decided to revoke the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim on 20 June 2016. The Ministry of Interior stated that the decision was “administrative” and cited Bahraini nationality law, stating that Sheikh Isa Qassim had allegedly caused “damage to the interest of the State or [took] actions contrary to the duty and loyalty to it.” Following Sheikh Isa Qassim’s denaturalization, the Public Prosecution in July 2016 charged Sheikh Isa Qassim, Sheikh al-Qassab, and al-Dirazi with alleged money laundering. The charges relate solely to the Shia religious practice of khums, which is a payment made by Shia Muslims to Shia clerics for charitable distribution to the community.

“The nationality of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim was revoked before the trial even began, which clearly indicates that the legal actions that proceeded after his nationality was stripped are part of the government’s reprisal campaign against him,” stated Sheikh Dr. Maytham al-Salman, Senior Advisor for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “He is solely being punished for supporting democratic and human rights reforms in Bahrain. Qassim’s trial for practicing religious rituals is baseless and could lead to further instability in Bahrain and in an already tense region.”

This move by the Bahraini government was met with international criticism. On 20 June 2016, the same day the Bahraini government announced Sheikh Isa Qassim’s denaturalization, the US State Department said it was “alarmed by the Government of Bahrain’s decision to revoke [his] citizenship”  and “remain deeply troubled… by the practice of withdrawing nationality of its citizens arbitrarily.” The European Union also warned that “revoking the citizenship of prominent figures such as Sheikh Isa Qassim risks increasing divisions and sectarian differences”.

Following the Bahraini authorities’ decision to denaturalize and bring charges against Sheikh Isa Qassim, there has been an ongoing, peaceful sit-in around his home in Diraz to protect him from possible deportation. Since June 2016, over 80 Shia clerics have been interrogated and at least nine sentenced for the exercise of their freedom of assembly and expression. The Bahraini government has set up barriers around Diraz, only allowing residents of the village to pass. Additionally, authorities have reportedly barred Friday prayers from the largest Shia mosque in Bahrain where Sheikh Isa Qassim preached.

In August 2016, five UN Special Procedure mandate holders issued a joint statement urging Bahrain to “end the persecution of Shias.” The mandates called on the Government of Bahrain to “stop such arbitrary arrests or summons and release all those who have been detained for exercising their rights.” Additionally, the UN urged the Bahraini authorities to “not resort to repressive measures and… enter into dialogue with all relevant parties in order to prevent unnecessary conflict or violence.”

The denaturalization and charges against Sheikh Isa Qassim are related solely to the practice of his religion and should therefore be deemed arbitrary. The Government of Bahrain, if it sentences Sheikh Isa Qassim to jail and deportation, risks causing heightened tensions and increased instability. We, therefore, strongly urge the Bahraini government to do the following:

  • Reinstate the Bahraini citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim
  • Drop all charges against Sheikh Isa Qassim, Sheikh Hussain al-Qassab, and Mirza al-Dirazi, as they relate solely to the practice of their religious faith
  • Stop the judicial harassment and interrogation of individuals for their participation in peaceful protests
  • Drop the charges against those religious clerics who have been charged in relation to their internationally-sanctioned rights to exercise free assembly and association
  • Meet the UN’s calls to end the systematic persecution against the Shia majority population in Bahrain

Signed,

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