REEMA SHALLAN: In Bahrain, the Prisons are for the Reformers

The people of Bahrain are currently facing an unprecedented attack on their human rights. Since 14 February 2011, the government has detained thousands of non-violent demonstrators for their involvement in pro-democracy protests.

Unfortunately, these arrests are just the first in a series of state-sanctioned human rights violations that pervade the Bahraini criminal justice system.

After they’ve detained a suspect, the authorities regularly disregard their obligation to ensure the dignity of prisoners under international human rights law. As such, once inside Bahrain’s prisons and detention centers, suspects are subjected to a wide array of human rights violations, including basic ill-treatment, medical neglect, and torture. These abuses are well documented by many international human rights organizations, as well as the report of The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).

Since 2011, both the BICI and these international human rights organizations suggest that the majority of these suspects are prisoners of conscience, held simply for exercising their right to the free expression.

In Bahrain, the consistent defense of human rights, and the clear commitment to democratic principles, makes you a target for abuse and detention.

Sheikh Ali Salman, my husband, is but one of these many political prisoners. The government detained Sheikh Ali Salman on charges related to his freedom of expression during its mass arrests of activists and opposition leaders, intended to undermine the popular uprising that began in 2011. Though the pro-democracy movement has remained steadfast in the face of systematic repression, many activists, like my husband, continue to suffer severe violations of their rights.

Despite the government’s claims to respect international standards, its treatment of my husband illustrates the true cost of defending human rights in Bahrain.

A prisoner of conscience

Sheikh Ali Salman, a prominent opposition leader, has earned widespread admiration for his dedication to peaceful political resolution in Bahrain. Indeed, the government arrested him on 28 December 2014, only two days after he gave a speech calling for non-violent political reform and his reelection as Secretary-General of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society.

As the Secretary General of Al-Wefaq, the largest political opposition party in the country, Sheikh Ali Salman has peacefully advocated for change for over 20 years. He is one of Bahrain’s strongest proponents of democracy, and has worked to improve citizen participation in government as well as to combat corruption and sectarian discrimination. Moreover, he was sought to establishment an independent judiciary and a parliament with real legislative power.

Though he committed no crime, and simply exercised his right to freely express his opinion, my husband has faced detention and abuse. For these reasons, Amnesty International – among other human rights organizations – has labelled him “a prisoner of conscience”.

Arresting this man, a key leader of the largest opposition group, reveals the government’s basic rejection of independent political action and dialogue in Bahrain. As we have seen over the last four years, government forces have worked to criminalize the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly – freedoms which together constitute the foundation for independent civil society. In absence of free civil society space, the government has been able to outlaw non-violent political demonstrations, and to arrest the leadership of any independent political organizations.

An unfair trial

Like many detained opposition leaders, Sheikh Ali Salman has been subjected to baseless charges and the denial of due process. The Public Prosecution indicted him for promoting the change of the political system, inciting hatred of the government, encouraging disobedience of the laws, and insulting the Interior Ministry. During his trial, the court refused to hear his defense and the Department of Defense refused to disclose exculpatory evidence in its possession. These blatant violations notwithstanding, the court convicted Sheikh Ali Salman and sentenced him to four years imprisonment.

My husband appealed his initial conviction, and on September 15, 2015, the authorities brought him to his new hearing handcuffed and dressed in a prison uniform. Once again, the court refused to admit exculpatory evidence, and failed to present much of the prosecution’s purportedly incriminating information. Sheikh Ali Salman’s defense expressed concern, if not surprise: “The court of appeal is going on the same way of the previous one, so we do not expect a better outcome from the trial.”

No will for reform

Since the beginning of the unrest in 2011, Bahrain has seen frequent demonstrations calling for freedom and equality. During these protests, the security forces have responded harshly, killing dozens and wounding thousands. The authorities have detained activists and politicians, and have even had workers fired for their political or sectarian affiliations. The arrest of my husband, who continued throughout the government crackdown to support a real dialogue, only underscores the declining political situation.

The authorities have made it clear that they aren’t ready to have this discussion, to engage with the opposition and end this crisis. Instead, the government has revealed a deep-seated obstinacy, ignoring the demands of both its people and the international community for more than four years. Simultaneously, it has ignored the calls for genuine dialogue, political reform, and respect for human rights – calls made by prisoners of conscience like my husband, Sheikh Ali Salman.

Sheikh Ali Salman’s View from Prison

Even as a non-violent critic of the government, Sheikh Ali Salman knew he could be arrested at any time. He also knew, however, that he could not allow the government to intimidate him, or silence his calls for change.

Since his arrest, and despite his 4-year prison sentence, he has continued to display his commitment to the movement, and still peacefully advocates for human rights, equality, freedom, justice, and democracy.

Sheikh Ali Salman’s refusal to be silenced, even in prison, is representative of the government’s broader inability to silence peaceful dissent with force. No matter how high the cost, the Bahraini people have decided to resist tyranny, and will continue their peaceful struggle for freedom until they are properly recognized by the government, and obtain their hard-earned rights.

Reema Shallan, Lawyer and Wife of Sheikh Ali Salman

The opinions expressed belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of ADHRB.