SUBJECT: OPEN LETTER REQUESTING URGENT ACTION FOR the RELEASE OF Ebrahim sharif and other PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE IN BAHRAIN
On the occasion of your latest visit to Bahrain and your meetings with various government and political society representatives, we would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our request for your immediate action with respect to securing the unconditional release of our Secretary General, Ebrahim Sharif, and all prisoners of conscience of Bahrain. While we value the FCO’s involvement and the role you personally play in ensuring that information is shared between all parties and processed transparently with regards to the political and human rights situation in Bahrain, we believe that there are issues of grave concern considerably marginalised through unsubstantiated reliance on the Bahraini government’s rhetoric and its PR campaigns in the presence of undeniable evidence providing otherwise. Such areas include, at the forefront, the current state of 13 political leaders still languishing in prison, including Sharif, despite being prisoners of conscience as verified by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in its report (Report).
How Freedom of Expression Became a Criminal Offence
When asked at the recent parliamentary session about the status of the 13 political leaders and Human Rights Watch report on the same, you stated,
“My understanding is that charges related to freedom of expression were indeed dropped, but there were other serious charges related to a number of the defendants, and my understanding is that they have been held on those charges,… [and] (b)ecause we have not got access to all the evidence, we are not in a position to make a judgment as to whether we think that is fair or not…”
We appreciate that the FCO was not directly privy to all details of the evidence and proceedings relating to the case of the 13 political leaders. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence and information that has come into the public domain which entirely obliterate the Bahraini government’s claims pertaining to the nature of these alleged “serious” charges. Furthermore, such information serves to clearly demonstrate the ongoing and systematic failure of the Bahraini government in applying basic principles of justice and its unwillingness to implement genuine reform. It is precisely the manner in which the government conveniently interprets the existing laws to turn legitimate peaceful freedom of expression into criminal offences that is the issue the UK government must stand firm against. We will demonstrate such failures and misapplication through presenting legal and procedural irregularities confirmed in the Report and during the trial.
BICI Report Findings
The Report has been very clear in its criticism of the local laws, in particular the Bahrain Penal Code, being applied to thwart, restrict and infringe on basic rights. It stipulates that the Government used Articles 165, 168, 179 and 180 “to punish those in the opposition and to deter political opposition” (Paragraph 1279) and was concerned “… about the conformity with international human rights law and the Constitution of Bahrain” (Paragraph 1280). The Report further states the following:
- Article 165 of the Penal Code “infringes upon the freedoms of opinion and expression by excluding from the public debate opinions that express opposition to the existing system of government in Bahrain, as well as opinions that call for any peaceful change in the structure or system of government or for regime change” (Paragraph 1281);
- Paragraph 1 of Article 168 of the Penal Code is ambiguous and lacks clear thresholds for application thereby “places broad restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of opinion and expression by criminalising any false or malicious news reports, statements or rumours to spread adverse publicity” (Paragraph 1282). Paragraph 2 of Article 168 relating to the possession in any way or form of material referred to above, which has also been “applied so as to restrict the freedoms of opinion and expression by infringing the right to seek, receive and impart information” (Paragraph 1283);
- Articles 165, 168 and 169 criminalise incitement towards the regime while lacking any requirement for material act causing individual or social harm. The Report confirmed that these “have been applied to repress legitimate criticism…” (Paragraph 1284);
- Article 179 pertaining to freedom of assembly was used to repress those who wish to exercise this right via criminalising attempts to participate in violence, thereby immediately linking assembly to rioting, without presenting any evidence to demonstrate material or tangible steps for committing such acts. This Article is used against those who wish to exercise this legitimate internationally protected right (Paragraph 1286); and
- Bahraini government’s record in cases dealing with the abovementioned Articles demonstrates significant inconsistency and there was no reasonable explanation provided for this disparity. Therefore, there is valid concern that the law has not been applied fairly to all those charged with crimes under freedom of opinion, speech and expression (Paragraph 1288).
Following from the clear misapplication of the Penal Code demonstrated above, it is increasingly evident that Sharif and others have been victims of an intentional repression of basic freedoms. The Public Prosecution failed to provide, at every instant, any substantial or material evidence which can be admissible in a fair and just court of law to demonstrate that Sharif or any of the others attempted to topple the regime by force or through incitement of violence. Nonetheless, the lack of evidence did not deter the government from pursuing a course of action that can only be described as repressive and vindictive in efforts to silence peaceful and legitimate voices.
The Trial: A Travesty of Justice
Despite the fact that Sharif and the 13 political leaders are undeniably prisoners of conscience, the government proceeded on its path for revenge and suppression of voices of legitimate dissent in a trial that can only be called a travesty of justice. The government’s rhetoric and PR campaigns have attempted to portray Sharif and others as prisoners charged with serious crimes, when in essence, they are attempting to thwart legitimate freedom of expression by jailing those who have peacefully opposed the failures of government. The convictions and sentences levied against these prisoners of conscience, ranging from a five year sentence against Sharif to life sentences against numerous others, were predominantly accomplished through the convenient misapplication of the law as highlighted above, in addition to the following legal violations and procedural irregularities which ultimately diminished their right to a fair trial:
- Government and judicial authorities persistently failed to investigate the claims of torture, refused to set aside confessions obtained under the same and explicitly disregarded multiple pieces of evidence which was repeatedly brought to its attention including:
- The evidence presented by BICI Report, which confirmed that the opposition leaders and activists have been subjected to torture and forceful extraction of confessions, in the same manner as the medics have been who later had their confessions waived and set aside during their trial;
- Reports of the international forensic medical experts of the BICI;
- Medical reports of many of the defendants pertaining to injuries suffered at the time of arrest and post-arrest;
- Statements provided by the opposition leaders and activists before the courts;
- The conditions of arrest and detainment confirm their subjection to torture, including the prevention of the defendants from contacting their families and lawyers for a significant period of time lasting for a few weeks and their detention in solitary confinement;
- The parity in the means and ways of torture and their compatibility with the methodology prescribed in the testimonies of the other detainees during the same period, which became part of public consciousness post their verification in the BICI report; and
- The Court of Cassation’s decision on 9 January, 2012 to overturn the judgment issued by the Military Courts on the grounds that the latter should have investigated the allegations of torture raised by the defence to ascertain the link between the same and the confessions, the injuries sustained by the defendants and the date on which the same have occurred, a decision which was ignored by the judicial system, evidenced by the lack of an investigation into the defendants’ torture claims.
- Preventing the defendants from properly attending the sessions without restrictions or chains in violation of Article 218 of the Code of Criminal Procedures as they were placed behind a glass shield. Such shield served as a barrier to sound, restricted them from hearing the proceedings and blocked contact with the lawyers. The Public Prosecution made statements about the defendants having unfettered freedom in the courtroom and full access to their lawyers during the proceedings, statements which were grossly and intentionally inaccurate. The defendants and lawyers complained about the heavy presence of security personnel around them at all times which impeded contact and violated client/lawyer confidentiality.
- Conversion of the sessions to secret hearings just as Sharif and the rest of the political leaders were to present their defence witnesses in contravention of the applicable laws (Article 105 (c) of the Constitution, Article 3 of the Judicial Authority Law and Article 214 of the Code of Criminal Procedures), which only provide for such conversion in the interest of maintaining public order or morals, conditions clearly not present in this case.
- The decision to convert the trial into secret hearings ultimately resulted in Sharif and the others insisting on their right to a public hearing and withdrawing their lawyers until such right is reinstated. Nonetheless, the Court dismissed their requests and appointed replacement lawyers without the consent of any of the defendants in direct violation of Article 20(e) of the Constitution. This resulted in the defendants effectively left without genuine defence in a highly critical phase of their trial, a phase that included presenting exculpatory evidence and defence witnesses. This violation is further exacerbated by the fact that such replacement lawyers did not attempt to contact any of the defendants, and their pleas were ultimately rejected by the Court due to lack of consent of defendants.
- The Court dispensed with the defence witness hearings upon the defendant’s insistence on a public hearing despite the fact that the names of these witnesses were submitted and hearings had been scheduled accordingly.
- The hearings were being convened at the rate of one session per 5 days, which is an abnormal and unprecedented pace in a criminal proceeding in Bahraini courts. The accelerated sessions prevented the defence from sufficiently preparing for the hearings and organising the evidence necessary to exercise the right to genuine defence, particularly in a case as critical and sensitive such as this.
- Repeated requests were made verbally and in writing by the defence lawyers to correct previous session minutes, and such requests were ignored. Consequently, the minutes did not accurately reflect the reality of the hearings, as most lacked the crucial defence requests necessary for presenting substantial evidence to establish the unequivocal innocence of the defendants, which included the following:
- Exclusion of confessions obtained under torture, as in the case of the medics;
- Exclusion of testimonies, investigation records and inquiries made by National Security Agency, security and military members as well as others involved in torture related to this case;
- Appointing a committee of impartial and independent experts in forensic examination to examine opposition leaders and activists and to determine the time and cause of their injuries from torture during investigation, under which confessions were extracted;
- Directing the court judge to investigate complaints of torture instead of Public Prosecution officials, whom are deemed unfit to carry this task due to their complicity and insistence on maintaining all the evidence presented against the opposition leaders and activists, including confessions extracted under torture and testimonies and evidence presented by those involved in torture; and
- Returning the belongings confiscated from the houses of opposition leaders and activists during their arrest without a search warrant.
- Upon the issuance of the Court of Cassation’s judgment overturning the convictions of the Military Courts and referring the trial to the Court of Criminal Appeal, the Public Prosecution made dangerous statements foreshadowing the ultimate outcome of the appeal before the same has been concluded. Such statements referred to the likelihood of the appeal affirming the judgments seeing as no change in the case, its merits or available evidence has occurred. The manner in which the trial was conducted meant that Sharif and the others were prevented from presenting exculpatory evidence to ensure that no change in case occurs as stated by the Public Prosecution. The defence lawyers had previously expressed their grave concern at the lack of proper conduct and impartiality the Public Prosecution demonstrated through such statements, which indicated a treacherous political dimension.
The persistent legal violations were clearly evident in the relentless non-compliance with the rights of Sharif and the others, including the exclusion of the BICI Report, opportune misapplication of key provisions of the Penal Code, the failure by the Court to allow them the opportunity to present their defence witnesses in a public hearing, the failure to investigate the torture complains and the serious procedural irregularities and breaches that have occurred at the time of arrest. Collectively, these failures not only show that the government is intentionally trying to stifle legitimate and popular demands through the imprisonment and torture of key opposition leaders, but serve to demonstrate their ongoing disregard for their international obligations and undertakings. Accordingly, it follows that the government of Bahrain has grossly and unjustly misrepresented the status of Sharif and other prisoners of conscience, and any reliance on such statements will necessarily be flawed and misplaced.
Human Rights Organisations and Persons
Statements by numerous human rights organisations and persons continue to validate the fact that Sharif and other political leaders are indeed prisoners of conscience, and continue to emphasise that the Bahraini government is not fulfilling its international obligations and commitments. The European Union High Representative, Ms. Catherine Ashton, in the EU-Gulf Ministerial Meeting held on 30 June, a meeting you have attended, reiterated her call for the release of the 13 high-profile activists currently imprisoned, who, as she attested, have peacefully exercised their right to protest. The EU’s special representative on human rights, Mr. Savros Lambrinidas, has also called for their release.
Furthermore, in a recent report published on 20 June, 2013, Human Rights Watch declared that upon its own examination of trial verdicts and other court documents of the trial of the 13 political leaders, of which Sharif is included, it concluded that these prisoners of conscience were “convicted solely of offenses related to speeches they made, meetings they attended, documents found on their computers, and calls they made for peaceful street protests.” Numerous other human rights organisations and persons, including Amnesty International, has long reported abuses, excessive use of force and, most importantly, unfair trials committed by various arms of the Bahraini government.
Other Statements and Issues of Concern
The UK government has indicated on a number of occasions that it continues to urge and encourage the government of Bahrain to implement the BICI Report recommendations and hold all perpetrators of injustice, including torture, accountable. Instead, since the release of the Report, the government has engaged in a full PR campaign to mitigate its impact on its international reputation, without demonstrating a genuine interest in restitution and reconciliation. The result of such campaign has been extensive cosmetic decrees, committees and often unsubstantiated rhetoric that have all significantly failed to conceal the glaring reality. The crisis that has resulted from this continued disregard for human rights has only deepened, creating a growing canyon of mistrust between the government and citizens.
Legislative amendments have been approved to supposedly give light to the Report’s recommendation pertaining to investigating torture claims and other injustices. Nonetheless, this mechanism, while appearing good on paper, is severely hampered by the fact that the system and officials responsible for the grave injustices are still in place and have not been brought to justice or punished for their heinous crimes. Additionally, the government is consistently vague about the actual measures being taken, with farcical trials being staged for junior officers who supposedly committed the torture and extrajudicial killings in prisons, two torturers of which have only recently been fully acquitted by the courts, including the identified torturer of a France 24 and Monte Carlo radio correspondent, not to mention the mere six-month jail sentence of the officer who killed Ali Mushaima, the first to die in the protests more than two years ago. To this date, in fact, no officer has been held accountable for the death of any of those killed in custody during the National Safety Law. All of this occurs as those who gave the orders, not the junior officers, are still free and will remain free to commit further injustices without reprimand, while protestors continue to be detained, tortured and imprisoned with fabricated charges. The current indicators only serve as a painful reminder of the culture of impunity that was further encouraged by the Amnesty Decree No. 56 of 2002. This worrying culture of impunity needs to be eradicated, with very strong condemnation from the UK government and active participation in supervision of implementation.
The fact that the visit of the Special Rapporteur on Torture has been refused again serves to demonstrate the Government's slacking in genuine implementation. Their desperate attempts at cosmetic fixes are unfortunately transparent. If the Bahraini government is indeed truthful about change and reconciliation, then human rights agency visits should not be blocked or conveniently postponed. We strongly urge you to maintain pressure on the Government and show a low tolerance for this disregard of human lives and their dignity. It is our belief that the UK government not only has adequate influence in the course of things in Bahrain, but also has the responsibility to hold its close ally, the Bahraini government, accountable to its undertakings and human rights obligations.
The UK government, and more recently the UK Ambassador to Bahrain Mr. Iain Lindsay, has continued to praise the efforts made by the Bahraini government in engaging with various sectors of society, including opposition. Nonetheless, this praise is misplaced when considering the serious deficiencies in this dialogue, which is primarily meant as a whitewashing exercise to give a veil of legitimacy while repression continues unmonitored as we demonstrated in the letter, not differing from the attempt made in the July 2011 dialogue that failed to resolve the current political crisis. The political opposition societies in Bahrain have always demonstrated good faith in dealing with any initiative that could alleviate the political crisis and accordingly are participating in the current dialogue. However, it must be noted that the political societies have stated that this dialogue suffers from gross inequality in representation, with legitimate opposition leaders languishing in prison and excluded from negotiations in which they should be active participants. Furthermore, the government has intentionally structured this dialogue to create a stalemate between opposition, loyalists and other “independent” participants without effectively having any representation from the regime itself who is part of society and indeed and an integral part of the political crisis. The dialogue continues without any programme or clear vision from the government’s side, diminishing its role to effectively that of a mere critic and in numerous cases, a hindrance.
Arms Deals and UK-Bahrain Economic Relations
Despite the fact that the Bahraini government has extensive international obligations to comply with in terms of improving its human rights situation, we have found that UK-Bahrain arms deals have increased significantly post the crisis. It is therefore shocking to see that while the UK government continues to encourage compliance, it is supplying the government with the means to continue repression. This dichotomy in rhetoric and in action provides dangerous legitimacy to Bahraini government violations. While the economic relations between the two countries are important, they must not be placed above human lives and their dignity. Unfortunately, unless the UK government enforces strict conditions on such deals, it will continue to be seen to provide a suitable cover for Bahrain to use to dodge its obligations and present itself as a country which respects human rights.
UK Government’s Response to State Violence and Street Violence
Numerous statements have and continue to be made by the UK government, particularly through the British Ambassador Mr. Iain Lindsay, which express low tolerance for all forms of street violence with strong and swift condemnation of the same. The rhetoric used in such condemnation is often unequivocal in branding all perpetrators of such as “terrorists”. Such statements are often used by official media outlets in Bahrain to vilify all forms of opposition and to further give legitimacy to security measures being escalated indiscriminately against citizens. On the other hand, state violence and violations often get marginalised and receives little or no official condemnation with statements issued merely referring to “concern” or “urging the government” against a backdrop of praise for its efforts. This dichotomy in addressing violence only serves to demonstrate a disregard for the core causes leading to such counter violence, namely the relentless exploitation of security solutions and utilisation of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators to repress freedom of expression as verified by the BICI Report. It also provides support to the Bahraini government and further encourages a culture of impunity, as it is apparent that violations continue to occur systematically without consequence.
We reiterate that we condemn all forms of violence and have repeatedly made our position clear in this regard. Nonetheless, unless the root of the political crisis is effectively addressed and proper measures are taken in terms of reconciliation and restitution, counter violence will continue to escalate. The dismal record in convictions of perpetrators of state violence and torture, combined with continuing policies of discrimination and harassment against citizens and ongoing violations provide the perfect catalyst for street violence. Accordingly, the balance of powers necessitates that state violence receives explicit and unconditional condemnation from the UK government, seeing as the state is an institution which should abide by higher standards of responsibility and accountability than individuals. The lack of such fair and transparent condemnation of state practices by the UK government can only demonstrate that diplomatic relations rank higher than human rights, a fact we are certain the UK government will not propagate.
Popular demands are still in full force, with the recent mass rallies proving a testament of the discontent on the streets of Bahrain and people's willingness to persevere until their demands are met. The UK government and you personally have acknowledged that people’s mass mobilisation was a result of ongoing deficiencies in the system of government that dates back to the early attempts of reform at the beginning of the new millennium, and not instigated by any foreign interference. Indeed, claims otherwise, as has been made by some UK officials, berates the injustice that our people have witnessed in the past decade and marginalise the legitimate demands to freedom, and is merely an attempt to downplay the real issues at hand. Therefore, it is undisputable that the continued marginalisation of legitimate demands and efforts to dilute mass dissent through unfair representation in an impotent dialogue will only lead to further exacerbation of the tension currently witnessed in Bahrain. Furthermore, the UK government’s approach to the situation in Bahrain and their tame stances are only allowing the Bahraini government to continue on a dangerous path of repression without fear of reprimand from the international community. The people of Bahrain, like their counterparts in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia deserve the international community's strong condemnation of the actions of their government. The dichotomy in rhetoric used to address different nations when it comes to the same demands for justice and equality should not be tolerated and similar measures must be taken against all perpetrators of injustice.
We remain committed to the legitimate demands of the Bahraini people and will be happy to provide any information which will aid you in reaching accurate depictions of the current status. We therefore strongly urge you to rigorously investigate all claims made by the Bahraini government and verify all statements made against the available evidence. The people of Bahrain, and indeed the world, deserve no less.
The Political Bureau
For and on behalf of
The National Democratic Action Society (Waad)