This article originally appeared in Prism Magazine.
By William Fisher
As a Bahraini appeals court upheld life sentences for seven “activists,” the tiny kingdom’s public relations apparatus appeared to be on steroids as it issued multiple press releases trumpeting positive developments toward ending a year of violent death and destruction.
The appeals for 13 other opposition figures were also denied. Most life sentences were upheld and a few sentences were reduced.
The near-simultaneous actions of the court and the government left some observers scratching their heads, seeking clarity for what they saw as the country’s schizophrenic policies. But human rights organizations were in no doubt: they condemned the harsh sentences and largely ignored the King’s claims of progress.
“The regime fears that releasing them means they will lead the revolution and gain more momentum,” Maryam Al-Khawaja told Prism. She is Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and one of two activist daughters of one of the eight activists whose life term in prison was confirmed by the Appeals Court. Her father is leading rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who staged a 110-day hunger strike earlier this year in protest.
The strategically important island nation, which is home to the US Fifth Fleet, is ruled by Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim. The majority of the population, however, is Shia. The Shia majority charges that it is systematically discriminated against.
Bahrain has been gripped by conflict since the winter of 2011, after protesters took to the streets, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. At least 50 people have died in the conflict thus far.
In the Appeals Court, seven activists’ life sentences were upheld. The sentence of a prominent Sunni opposition activist was reduced to five years. A government prosecutor said many of those convicted were in “intelligence contact” with Iran and Hezbollah, and the official charges range from “violation of the Constitution, conspiring to overthrow the government, [and] espionage.” Seven of the defendants were tried in absentia.
In addition to the eight sentenced to life in prison, 12 others were given lesser prison terms, ranging from five to 15 years, with seven of them convicted in absentia.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, condemned the sentences. “The decision by Bahrain’s appeal court to uphold sentences against 13 opposition activists and prisoners of conscience is outrageous and the authorities must ensure it is overturned and the activists immediately and unconditionally released,” he said.
But the consensus is that release is not going to happen any time soon. Rather, a number of observers said the Bahraini authorities may want to try to use the imprisoned activists as bargaining chips to further their leverage in peace talks.
This week’s sentencing of the 20 is only one of the Kingdom’s many court actions that have drawn angry charges from the human rights community.
The group Physicians for Human Rights denounced the sentences and called on the government to set aside the verdicts against all the medics. “Eighteen of the accused medical professionals have alleged that Bahraini security forces tortured them while in detention,” the group said in a statement.
Maryam Alkhawaja, vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and daughter of one of the men receiving life sentences, tweeted that the nine acquittals should not be seen as an achievement, because “they shouldn’t have been arrested and tortured to begin with.”
Some of the medics say they were treating people injured in last year’s protests against the government. Many were arrested in the hospital while treating patients.
Of the 11 whose convictions stand, two are at large, five will be released on time served and the other four can appeal their sentences again, the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority announced.
Meanwhile, the Bahraini government says it is proceeding with implementation of recommendations made by the independent commission facilitated and funded by the king. One of those recommendations was the establishment of an Ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior, which deals with most police matters.
The Ministry has announced that “the new office will conduct independent investigations and adopt an honest, neutral, professional and transparent approach to all investigations of police misconduct.”
The Office of Ombudsman will investigate complaints from civilians against public security force personnel; and is also in charge of overseeing the Internal Affairs Office, keeping records and evidence relating to the investigations and proposing disciplinary actions in appropriate cases.
The Ministry said it was committed to upholding the principles within the new Police Code of Conduct and know that this is an important step in beginning to build trust and mutual respect between the community and the police.”
In another development announced by the government, three human rights organizations will address Family Law for Shiite Women at the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on September 19, headed by Faisal Fulad. The groups will attend the event in Geneva in which the Government of Bahrain will provide their responses on 176 recommendations, including the one concerning the Jaffari(Shi’ite) Court’s ruling on family law.
Amending the family law to cover Shiite women has been cited by HRH Princess Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa as a necessity for the protection of Bahraini families. MPs of the Bahrain Bloc have made the proposed family law for Shiites their top priority for when they resume their sessions in October.
Meanwhile, arrests and violence continue. But on the whole only human rights organizations and large international bodies like the United Nations are raising their voices in full throated opposition.
For example, ANHRI (Arabic Network for Human Rights Information) is condemning renewal of the imprisonment of the Journalist and blogger Ahmed El-Radah on charges of assembling and breach of public security.
The public prosecution renewed the imprisonment of the journalist and the blogger Ahmed El-Radah for another 15 days due to new charges by Bahraini authorities. These include “initiation of fire in execution of terroristic purposes and having combustible materials (Molotov) and assembling by the intention of breaching the public security through using violence.”
ANHRI charged that the renewal of Ahmed El-Radah’s imprisonment of “proves that the statement of the king of the country that no journalist will be imprisoned because of his opinion, is deemed to be ink on a paper.”
While encouraging royal accommodation leading to peaceful resolution of the conflict, the Bahraini Government’s actions have “put US foreign policy makers in an awkward position,” according to Abolghasem Bayyenat, an independent political analyst and a current Ph.D candidate of political science at Syracuse University .
Writing in Foreign Policy Journal, he said:
“The US government has largely lent its diplomatic weight to the Saudi regime in stifling popular uprising in Bahrain for fear that any democratic transformation in that country would work in Iran’s advantage, thus undermining its own interests in the Persian Gulf region.”
He added, “This posture has further undermined the image of the US before the Middle Eastern public due to its perceived double standards towards regional political developments, and it is likely to work to the detriment of US strategic interests in the region in the long run.”
And, last month, a group of independent United Nations experts voiced serious concerns about the “campaign of persecution” by the Bahraini authorities against those working to promote human rights in the country, and called for the prompt release of a prominent human rights defender recently sentenced to three years imprisonment.
“It is time for the Bahraini authorities to comply with the rights to peaceful assembly and expression and immediately release those arbitrarily detained for exercising their legitimate freedoms,” the experts said in a news release issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights