Bahrain court acquits leading opposition leader


Sheikh Ali Salman

Sheikh Ali Salman

21 June 2018 – Bahrain’s High Criminal Court acquitted the leader of Bahrain’s dissolved opposition party Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, of politically motivated charges related to espionage.

The verdict marked the end of a long, flawed trial. Sheikh Salman was acquitted alongside his two co-defendants and leading figures in the Al-Wefaq party, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al-Aswad. Sheikh Salman’s co-defendants were tried in absentia.

Sheikh Salman is currently serving a four year sentence in Jau Prison in relation to another freedom of expression case.

Commenting, BIRD’s Director of Advocacy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei: “This case should never have been initiated in the first place: Sheikh Ali Salman had been used as a pawn in Bahrain’s game of power politics. Despite his acquittal, Sheikh Salman will continue to languish in Jau Prison for exercising his right to freedom of expression.  His conviction must be overturned and he must be released immediately.”

Background Information: The Qatari Case

Timeline of Events According to Bahrain’s Public Prosecution

  • August 2017 – Bahrain’s state television broadcasted an audio recording of a phone call between Sheikh Salman and the then Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani. This event triggered Sheikh Salman’s prosecution.

  • 1 November 2017 – Sheikh Salman was summoned by the Public Prosecution and charged undermining the “political, economic position and national interests with the purpose of overthrowing the regime” in Bahrain. He had been accused of maintaining intelligence contacts with Qatar. More specifically, his allegations included revealing national defence secrets and accepting financial sums from a foreign country, namely Qatar.

  • 12 November 2017 – The Public Prosecution referred the case to the High Criminal Court.

  • 24 April 2018 – The Public Prosecution stated that the case was postponed to 21 June for sentencing.

The Qatari Mediation as Referenced by the 2011 BICI Report

Paragraph 527 of the 2011 report by Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), cited opposition sources suggested that the then Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, could act as the sponsor of a proposed United States initiative. Opposition sources also indicated that the State of Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, attempted to mediate between the Bahraini Government and opposition parties in the following days, and that this initiative was accepted by the opposition but rejected by the Government.

However, the mediating role of Qatar never arose as an issue before the Qatari crisis of 2017.

Background Information: Freedom of Expression Case

Sheikh Salman is currently imprisoned in Jau Prison as a result of a separate conviction related to speeches he delivered in 2014 against parliamentary elections that his party boycotted. Some of Sheikh Salman’s charged included publicly inciting hatred, civil disobedience and for promoting change within the ruling government. He was initially sentenced to four years in June 2015, and increased to nine-year prison sentence by the appeal court and then reduced back to four years on 3 April 2017 by the highest court, In reality he was convicted in relation to peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, following a grossly unfair trial.

Early last year, Sheikh Salman was among the 12 opposition activists and human rights defenders who were subjected to degrading treatment in Jau Prison. Since then, he has been denied the right to family visitations and access to books.

International Responses

United Nations

  • In February 2015, five UN experts expressed concern for the arrest and detention of Sheikh Salman, and called for his release.

  • In September 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) officially declared Sheikh Salman to be arbitrarily detained. The WGAD cited both freedom of expression and due process concerns, requested for his immediate release and that he receive his enforceable right to compensation.

United Kingdom (UK)

On 15 June 2018, in response to a parliamentary question on Sheikh Salman’s case, UK MENA Minister Alistair Burt merely stated that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had “raised the case at a senior level with the Government of Bahrain”. The Minister, however, has failed to publicly condemn the charges.

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Bahraini activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja deteriorating rapidly in prison

Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi AlKhawaja is now entering the 58th day of his hunger strike, having spent his 51st birthday yesterday in a prison clinic.

His lawyer has tweeted a picture of him in his weak and critical state, a far cry from the smiling and lively man that he once was, even though his principles remain unchanged. Mary Lawlor, executive director of Front Line Defenders, said that the activist is “at serious risk of imminent organ failure” after returning from a trip to Bahrain this week. She also reported that he has “shed 25 per cent of his body weight.” On 4 April he was transferred to a prison clinic for observation. Despite official documentation of his torture in prison and several calls for his release, Alkhawaja still remains imprisoned, serving a life sentence handed for peacefully protesting at Pearl Roundabout last year.

Alkhawaja’s  daughters Zainab and Maryam credit their father for their commitment to human rights and peaceful tactics, and have inherited his passion and determination in speaking out against human rights violations in Bahrain. Both women have been careful to avoid focusing attention on a single individual, even as their father’s condition has worsened. They have recently decided to speak about their own family for a change, as his state is leading many to believe that Alkhawaja nearing the end of his life.

Maryam, who also serves as the Head of Foreign Relations for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, wrote on Thursday that she finds it “difficult to remain impartial” and avoid focusing on more personal causes, but continues to persevere, fearing the moment when she will receive a phone call telling her her father is dead. Zainab recently wrote a poem about her father entitled, “The sultan digs my father’s grave,” in which she grimly describes watching her father dying. Despite feeling despair, she describes her father as being “tranquil” and pushing her to remain committed to fighting for human rights.

Several international human rights organisations have pushed on the Bahraini government to release the activist, who is also a Danish citizen. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal called for his release or retrial by a civilian court back in March, yet such calls are still ignored.

AlKhawaja has become a symbol of a non-violent movement in the tiny country, and his death could solidify the already mounting disillusionment within Bahrain’s opposition. The country’s largest opposition group, Al-Wefaq, released a statement earlier this week condemning the activist’s continued detention, warning that his worsening condition would only inflame tensions and that “the regime is responsible for the consequences.” Lawlor, of Front Line Defenders, also warned of the grave consequences of Alkhawaja’s death in prison, stating that it would only “cause a great deal more unrest.”

What little faith there was in the government’s commitment to reform has been lost in many ways, and AlKhawaja’s release would only confirm that the royal family’s promises to carry out the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report served as nothing more than an elaborate exercise in public relations — rather than a commitment to human rights. AlKhawaja’s death would only ensure a deeper divide in an already polarised debate.