The decision made by Bahrain’s highest appeal court to uphold the sentences against 13 opposition figures has been met with widespread disproval and condemnation in the international community, as well as from opposition groups locally.
It signaled the last chance for the men to have their convictions quashed or at least sentences reduced. Eight of the 13 face life sentences, including prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, whilst another 5 face 15 years behind bars.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights has described their cases as being in contravention of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry that called for all evidence taken under torture to be thrown out and for new trials to take place in civilian courts.
As resigned opposition MP Ali Alaswad pointed out, whilst the court might be different, the evidence and ultimately the convictions have not changed since the original hearings in military court.
The leading opposition party, Al Wefaq, referred to a statement of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay from 2011 when the sentences were originally handed out, describing the sentences as absolutely political. They said the convictions reflects the absence of an independent judiciary in Bahrain and highlights the need for immediate judicial reform.
Reuters news agency reported similar statements from both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch leading with the headline “Uprising verdict shows Bahrain courts can’t protect rights – groups”.
Human Rights Watch described the convictions as “grossly unfair” with Deputy Middle East Director Joe Stork saying, ““The mind-boggling verdicts in these cases did not mention a single recognizable criminal offense, instead pointing to speeches the defendants made, meetings they attended, and their calls for peaceful street protests in February and March 2011.”
Meanwhile Amnesty International called the rejection of the activists appeals “unfair”. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said: “This unjust decision will confirm the view of many that the judiciary is more concerned about toeing the government’s line than upholding the rule of law and the rights of all Bahrainis.” Freedom House also provided a strong statement.
Notably the decision prompted strong statements from Bahrain’s international allies. Alistair Burt, the UK Minister for the Middle East, said he was “dismayed” by the action of the Bahrain Government.
Not since the beginning of the crackdown against protesters in February 2011 has Bahrain been on the receiving end of such strong words from the UK Government. Interestingly the statement referred only to sentences and left out the usual condemnation of violence and call for dialogue.
In a press briefing, a spokesperson for the US State Department said, “We regret today’s decision by the Bahraini Court of Cassation to uphold the convictions and the sentences of these 13 activists. We’re concerned that this decision further restricts freedom of expression and compromises the atmosphere within Bahrain for reconciliation.” Meanwhile the French Government “regretted” the decision and affirmed their commitment to freedom of expression and opinion.
Condemnation on behalf of the United Nations was not left solely to the Human Rights Office on this occasion with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressing his “deep regret” over the decision. His spokesperson said, ““He reiterates his firm belief that the only way to promote peace, stability, justice and prosperity in Bahrain is through a national dialogue which addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis, and in which all communities can participate freely, without fear or intimidation.”
A spokesperson for the Office of Human Rights told reporters in Geneva, ““We regret that Bahrain’s highest court on Monday upheld the convictions of 13 activists for their role in pro-democracy demonstrations, after two years of trials and despite the conclusions of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and the appeals by the international community concerning the judicial procedure and allegations of torture.”
It is not the first time Bahrain has come under such attacks from the international community, but it all adds to the mounting pressure to release the prisoners and begin the process of reform. Importantly it is a clear indication that even Bahrain’s own allies in the West can see through the propaganda and lies.