Playing cat and mouse with Bahrain’s political prisoners

By BahrainFeb14Bilad |Demotix

There are no prisoners of conscience in Bahrain — at least that’s what the government would like you to think.

A year ago today, eight opposition activists were given life sentences for their involvement in the country’s anti-government uprising. When NGOs and foreign governments call for the release of political prisoners, particularly those jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, the regime responds with “We have!”. The dictatorship continues to falsely claims that these individuals have been jailed for criminal or violent offences rather than acknowledging the truth, they are there for voicing their desire for change.

When voices from the international community call for all prisoners of conscience or all those charged solely for the expression of their views to be freed, it makes little dent in Bahrain’s obduracy.

Take the well-known case of the Bahraini medics. For merely doing their jobs, they were arrested, detained, tortured into making false confessions, subjected to an unfair trial in a military court and sentenced to long prison terms. But because that is not what it said on their charge sheet — which included allegations such as smuggling weapons and occupying the main hospital — the Bahraini government refused to admit that they were convicted for expressing their opinions.

Last week nine of the 20 were declared innocent on appeal, leading to awkward questions about why nine leading medical professionals with impressive careers and reputations would all have confessed to crimes they did not commit.

While various detainees are considered to be “prisoners of conscience” by the international community, the Bahraini government continues to insist on painting them as “traitors” and “terrorists”. Mahdi Abu Deeb, for instance, leader of the Bahrain Teachers Union, called for a strike during the start of the country’s uprising last year to call for reform in Bahrain’s education system, and to protest the brutal crackdown against demonstrators gathered at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout. For this, he was then handed a 10-year sentence for “halting the education process”, “inciting hatred of the political regime”, and “attempting to overthrow the regime by force”.

Similarly, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is one of the most famous human rights defenders in the region, and now the world. The founder of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), who peacefully called for change at Pearl Roundabout last year, has been branded a “terrorist” or “traitor” by state-owned media, much like other detainees. Alkhawaja was convicted of violent crimes — after documented torture and an unfair military trial — but the Bahraini government still refuses to class him as a political prisoner.

During the Universal Periodic Review process in Geneva last month, Bahraini Human Rights Minister Salah Bin Ali Mohamed Abdulrahman told the Human Rights Council that his country held no prisoners on political charges. “Any such charges have been withdrawn. The only [remaining] cases are criminal cases,” he said.

Instead of this ping-pong conversation between the regime and human rights organisations of “release prisoners of conscience” — “oh we already have”, it might be better to focus attention on the unfair military trials of last year, where 502 people were convicted of a variety of offences, both peaceful and violent. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for these convictions to be overturned. Last December she called on the Bahraini regime to “urgently take confidence-building measures including unconditionally releasing those who were convicted in military tribunals or are still awaiting trial for merely exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.”

This would mean the immediate release and dropping of charges against Abdulhadi Alkhawja and other prominent dissidents including Mahdi Abu Deeb and his deputy Jalila al Salman, and hundreds of others prosecuted in politically-motivated trials but officially convicted of criminal or violent offences. If the regime has real evidence that any of these people have commited violent crimes then it should retry them in a new, fair process.

Of course, this would not solve the problem of those who are being harassed through the civilian courts. Other prominent human rights defenders Zainab Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab, president of the BCHR, have been regularly detained over the last few months because of their success in drawing attention to the regime’s abuses. Rajab is currently being targeted for expressing his views on Twitter, where he has over 150,000 followers, and will be detained at least until 27 June. A new crackdown on those using social media is expected as Bahraini officials warn those promoting “sedition” on social networks.

The Bahraini regime should be denied the wriggle room of insisting it has released all prisoners of conscience when many of them were convicted on trumped-up charges of violence. Demanding the release of all those convicted by the kangaroo military court (on any charge) would be a start.

Brian Dooley is Director of the Human Rights Defenders programme at Human Rights First. He tweets at @dooley_dooley