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Back Publications Briefings Three years and counting: The Bahrain revolution and its imprisoned leaders

Three years and counting: The Bahrain revolution and its imprisoned leaders

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Caterina Aiena provides an overview of false imprisonment of political opponents


In the wake of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, Bahrain has witnessed its wave of revolutionary mass protest demanding constitutional changes, greater freedom and equality of the marginalised majority Shia population and political freedom and equality for the population as a whole. The revolution, labelled the “14 February uprising” or “Pearl uprising”, from the square that became the symbol of the Bahraini popular revolt, soon provoked a strong reaction from the security forces and the military, who promptly crushed the popular pro-democracy movement, declared a state of “National Safety” (Martial Law) and hailed the intervention of GCC security and military forces under the cover of the Peninsula Shield Force[1].

In this perspective, the arrest of the prominent opposition leaders represents undoubtedly the latest move by Bahraini authorities to tighten the noose on political opposition in the country, and silence anyone seen to be critical of the authorities. These leading figures come from groups such as: al-Wefaq, the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a human rights organisation banned by Bahrain’s government since 2004.

Victims of illegal arrests are subjected to any form of physical and psychological abuses, all those prominent figures, referred by the media as “the group of Thirteen”, or the “case of icons”, became de facto political prisoners in their own country. The group comprises opposition leaders, rights activists, bloggers and clerics who have been arrested between 17 March and 9 April 2011, in connection with their role in the national uprising. 

Not surprisingly, the same discernible pattern has been applied by the Bahraini authorities to all of them:  illegal and unfair trial, false allegation under the “terrorist label” and mistreatment during detention; all measures have been taken in blatant contradiction to international human rights frameworks by which Bahrain should abide.  Prosecutors have invoked  accusations of "setting up terror groups to topple the royal regime, changing the constitution and collaborating with a foreign state". Other charges included "insulting the army, inciting hatred, disseminating false information and taking part in rallies without notifying the authorities". Following their arrest, the Bahrain Thirteen were kept in solitary confinement for weeks and sent for trial before the National Safety Court, a special military court expressly set up in March 2011 to try the supporters of the Bahraini uprising. During their arrest, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights observed some of what these activists have suffered with torture by Bahrain National Security Agency officers in seeking to secure forced confessions. They were allegedly subjected to the following [2]: 

I. Violations during the arrest and detention. 

II. Torture by the National Security Apparatus 

III. Physical and psychological torture at the military prison, including sexual assault.

IV. Violations related to the interrogations done by the National Security Apparatus and the Military Prosecution. 

V. Violations related to trials before the Military Court. 

VI. Vengeance on relatives of the detainees.

Following the hunger strike of the detainees in early 2012 and the mobilisation of the international community and civil society, the court announced that the thirteen defendants would have been retried by a civilian criminal court of appeal. However, rather than a real attempt of restoring the rule of law in the country, the decision may be regarded as mere deceitful measure carried out by the Bahraini authorities in order to placate the international climate surrounding the government. This was even more manifest when in January 2013 the civilian court confirmed the sentence of the former court against all the defendants. With the court decision, the thirteen defendants had exhausted their last chance to appeal and the only avenue that remains for their release is a royal pardon. 

Al-Marzooq

Khalil al-Marzooq is one leading figure of the major opponent party, the Wefaq, and an ex-MP of the Council of Representatives, the lower legislative body in Bahrain.  Al-Marzooq was arrested on 18 September 2013 for his criticism of the government. 

Only a few months before Al-Marzooq’s arrest, the King issued several decrees which overtly banned demonstrations, sit-ins and public gatherings in Bahrain and toughened punishments laid out in the 2006 anti-terrorism legislation. In early September the Minister of Justice issued a decree adding new restrictions on political associations.[3]

He has been charged with “promoting acts that amount to terrorist crimes” by the Bahraini prosecution, in net contrast to his political views about peaceful struggle for democratic transition. His arrest sparked international condemnation of Bahrain by international rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as local and regional organisations. The request for transparency in the trials and on handling political cases in conformity with International Human Rights standards recently led forty-seven countries to sign a resolution in the Human Rights Council in Geneva.[4] 

On Tuesday 18 September 2013, Al-Marzooq was summoned to the police station for questioning regarding a speech he delivered the preceding week, at a political rally near the village of Saar.  After being interrogated for seven hours he was referred to the Public Prosecution Office, who eventually ordered his detention for 30 days pending an investigation.[5] Since his arrest, Khalil Al Marzooq was held in detention in an isolated prison, at Riffa centre.[6] On Saturday 5 October, Bahrain’s public prosecutor overtly declared he had referred al- Marzooq to court on a charge of “supporting the principles of terror elements (...) especially the terrorist group named the February 14 Coalition, which he openly supported”. [7] According to the prosuection, during the speech the defendant was found in possession of a white flag placed near the podium; the flag allegedly symbolises the “14 February Movement”.[8] 

Al Marzooq had to appear before court on Monday 18 November, after he had been released from detention where he had spent 38 days.[9] The Supreme Criminal Court announced that the trial against him has been postponed to 12 December.[10] However, the Bahraini criminal court did not intend to drop the charges against him and until the present time, Al Marzooq remains under a travel ban.[11]

Hasan Mushaima

Hasan Mushaima played a crucial role in the Bahraini political arena as opposition leader in the struggle for a more democratic Bahrain. He was a founding member of Al Wefaq, currently he is the secretary-general of the Haq Movement, and founding leader of the "Alliance for the Republic ", a movement which aims at ousting the king from the royal throne. 

Alongside with the members of the “Bahraini Thirteen”, Mushaima was forcibly removed from the Pearl Roundabout, arrested and eventually sentenced on 22 June 2011 to life imprisonment by the military court for "attempting to overthrow the monarchy". Likewise the other opponents leading the uprising, in September 2012 he was subject to a civilian retrial, which upheld the sentence of the military court. 

His health conditions are severely impaired by lung cancer. Police authorities, after having severely tortured him following his arrest, continue to delay a much needed check-up and the possible treatment he might need to prevent the further onset of cancer.  According to family members, Mushaima was taken blindfolded and handcuffed three times to a place where he was given injections. He was reportedly not informed what the injections were or what they were for, and he was kept blindfolded throughout the process. 

Abdul Al-Jalil Al-Singace

Al-Singace was  a member of the board of directors of Al-Wefaq, but resigned from it in order to join the newly formed Haq movement where he became the head of its human rights bureau. Prior to the revolution, his long career as political opponent witnessed repeated imprisonment and misconduct against him by the police officials resulting in a deterioration of his health conditions. Indeed, Al-Singace has been disabled since a young age and usually uses a wheelchair or crutches due to the side effects of childhood polio. 

Like al-Marzooq and the “13 group” of protesters, in June 2013 he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the military National Safety Court with the charge of “plotting to topple the government”. As revealed by many Human Rights organisations’ reports, and confessed by himself later during his speech at the court, al-Singace has been victim of repeated cases of verbal and physical abuses, sexual assault, torture and psychological threats and humiliation by police and prison officials. To mention some case thereof, throughout his solitary confinement, Al-Singace was deprived of his cane and then forced to stand on his good leg without crutches for prolonged periods. Further, he was subjected to humiliating and degrading acts such as being forced to "lick shoes and wipe them on his face".  The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report revealed that Al-Singace is now suffering from multiple health problems as a result of such deviant acts. Again, throughout the detention period, he was not allowed to communicate with the other detainees or call family and lawyer, except on two occasions when he could make a ninety-second phone call to them. 

Nabeel Rajab

Nabeel Rajab is one of a trio of prominent activists - including Abdul-Jalil al-Singace and the BCHR's founder Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. At the present, he is chairing the presidency of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, he is also a member of the Advisory Committee of the Middle East Division of Human Rights Watch, member of the Advisory Board of the Bahrain Rehabilitation and Anti-Violence Organisation and president of Gulf Center for Human Rights. Since his two contemporaries have each received lifelong prison sentences, he became according to Al-Jazeera the "unofficial leader of the 14 February movement", and "the de-facto leader of Bahrain's resurgent uprising". 

Following protests in April 2012, Rajab was arrested and incarcerated several times. On 10 April 2012, Rajab was accused of fabricating photos posted on his Twitter account of the body of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, a protester who died in detention on 9 April. The photos showed slash marks all over Saqer's back and other signs of physical abuse. On 9 July, he was detained and sentenced to three months in prison for having "insulted Bahrainis" in a Twitter message on 16 August, while still in detention, Rajab was sentenced to three years' imprisonment on three protest-related charges.  Charges are "involvement in illegal practices and inciting gatherings and calling for unauthorised marches through social networking sites", "participation in an illegal assembly", and "participation in an illegal gathering and calling for a march without prior notification." Due to the criticism from the international community and Bahrain’s allies, in December, 2012, the sentence was reduced to 2 years in prison after appeal.

Ali Salman

Although not formally part of the “13 group”, his experience can testify the clear will of the Bahrain Emirate to annihilate the opposition leaders and to show its iron fist.

Ali Salman is the Secretary-General of the Al-Wefaq party and a well-known figure by the Bahraini authorities for his commitment to political reformist discourse. Forcibly exiled after the 1990s uprising to Dubai, at the present time he has been charged with inciting terrorism after he held an exhibition at the headquarters of Al-Wefaq in mid-October. The exhibition aimed to display the violations that occurred during Bahrain's then 32-month revolution, as they had been documented by the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.[12, 13]

On Sunday 2 November 2013, the day after the police stormed the exhibition, the Bahraini police summoned Sheikh Ali Salman to appear before the public prosecution for interrogation, even though it was not clear why he was being called in for questioning.[14]  According to BNA News, the interrogation extended to 6 hours and ended with the accusation by Bahrain’s public prosecution of “insulting the interior minister”.[15] In response, he objected that if Al Wefaq’s museum was an insult to a governmental body, then this means that the BICI report and the UPR recommendations issued by the UN Human Rights Council, alongside the reports issued by international rights organisations and allies of Bahrain, are all considered an insult to a governmental body.[16]

Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society addressed the Public Prosecution Office in response to the illegal raid carried out by the regime forces. In its letter, Al-Wefaq stressed that the measures taken by the regime is an infringement to the political associations’ law in Article 19, whereby the offices of the Society as well as its documents, posts and communications, are protected by law and it is illegal to spy on a society or confiscate its possessions without a judicial decision. As a result, al-Wefaq expressed its conclusion that the inspection and its results are to be considered void. [17]

The day after his interrogation, Sheikh Ali Salman was released but by placed under house arrest. It seems that charges against him have not yet been dropped.  

Conclusion

According to the Bahrain Independent Commission, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and international human rights organisations, the new counter-terrorism bill, entitled “Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts” and approved by the parliament on July 2006, undoubtedly represents a threat to freedom of expression and association and undermines  human rights protection in the country. 

The main criticism revolves around three basic points as to Bahraini domestic law. Firstly, the unsatisfactory definition of what constitutes a terroristic act as provided by article 1 and 6 of the bill. According to them, a terrorist organisation is too vaguely defined as one which aims to “harm the national unity”, without reference to a specific intention to cause death or serious injury. In this regard, the law may be considered a measure aiming to protect the interest of the ruling family and to ensure their stability, while risking criminalising the peaceful exercise of the freedoms of expression, and failing to offer a sufficient safeguard against politically motivated trial and unsafe convictions.

Secondly, articles 26 and 28 legitimise excessive detention before charge without judicial review. They grant the public prosecutor and security services, who are not independent judicial authorities suited to check arbitrary detention, the excessive discretion to ask for extension of pre-charge detention, on the basis of secret evidence which the detainee does not have access to and cannot challenge.  

Thirdly, all trials constitute an example of misconduct and illegality.  It is worth mentioning that all arrests have been ordered without a legal warrant; the defence  denied the right to interrogate the prosecution witnesses and to present a verbal pleading or to fully assist the victims. In addition, the trials were semi-private as the court authorities refused to allow a number of independent human rights observers to attend the hearings, and lastly the medical records which included evidence of severe torture, have been deliberately neglected by judges. 

For all these reasons, Islamic Human Right Commission believes that there are no legal grounds for the continued imprisonment of these activists. The lack of international standards sanction the invalidity of the sentences issued. Consequently, all trumped up charges should be immediately dropped and all detainees released and all allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bahraini forces should be thoroughly  investigated and prosecuted. 

Further Reading:

Concerns regarding the BICI, November 2011

http://www.ihrc.org.uk/attachments/article/9943/Bahrain%20Report%20A4-v02%20IHRC.pdf

Broken Promises: Human Rights, Constitutionalism and Socio-Economic Exclusion in Bahrain, 2010

http://www.ihrc.org.uk/attachments/9458_Report%20on%20Bahrain-Book-240x170-v05.pdf

Report of the Trial Monitor in the Ma’ameer and Adary Park Cases, Bahrain, 2010

http://www.ihrc.org.uk/publications/reports/9456-report-of-the-trial-monitor-in-the-maameer-and-adary-park-cases-bahrain-2010

Report of the Trial Monitor in the Karzakan and Ma’ameer cases, Bahrain, 2009

http://www.ihrc.org.uk/attachments/9137_KarzakanMaameerFINAL2(2).pdf

The one where Hillary supports the Dictators in Bahrain

http://www.ihrc.org.uk/publications/comment/9593-the-one-where-hillary-supports-the-dictators-in-bahrain

Endnotes:

 [1] The Peninsular Shield Force, is a military force of about 30,000 troops formed as a result of a GCC meeting in 1982.  PSF was set up in 1983 and represents the military cooperation of the Gulf states.

 [2] This is a special court that includes three judges, two civil and one military. The Court’s decisions are not final as appeals are allowed but if the appeal is before the same court, questions arise about the neutrality and impartiality of this court, especially because it contains a military. The Court’s statute allows the right to counsel, but in practice this right has not always been guaranteed.

 [3] http://www.abna.ir/data.asp?lang=3&Id=464216

 [4] http://www.abna.ir/data.asp?lang=3&Id=464216

 [5] http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/bahrain-khalil-al-marzouq-arrested-2013-09-18

 [6] http://www.abna.ir/data.asp?lang=3&Id=466450

 [7]  http://jordantimes.com/bahrain-charges-leading-ex-mp-with-inciting-terror

 [8] http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/bahrain-khalil-al-marzouq-arrested-2013-09-18

 [9] See http://www.abna.ir/data.asp?lang=3&id=481965 and http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13920827000720

 [10] http://archive.crossborderinformation.com/Article/%EF%BB%BFBahraini+Court+frees+Khalil+Al-Marzooq,+but+charges+remain.aspx?date=20131031

 [11] http://www.irdc.ir/en/content/36177/default.aspx

 [12] See http://www.almanar.com.lb/english/main.php

 [13] See http://www.abna.ir/data.asp?lang=3&Id=477807. ABNA of today has evolved into a major analytical and informative website from its primitive simple form which was known as Shianews.Shianews started its activities on March 15th, 2005 in three languages (Arabic, English, and Persian). Administrators of Shianews were some staff members of Department of International Affairs at the Ahlulbayt World Assembly.  In August 2007 its title was changed into AhlulBayt NewsAgency (www.abna.ir). 

 [14] See Note 1

 [15] See Note 6

 [16] See Note 6

 [17] See Note 1

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