Continued detention of Sheikh Ali Salman shows no justice in Bahrain

Following the first hearing today in the trial of Sheikh Ali Salman, Al Wefaq Secretary General, Salman will remain in detention at least until the second session on 25th February. By this point he will have already spent two months in jail; thereby Sheikh Ali Salman is already serving a sentence. As the Secretary General of the largest political society in Bahrain, the detention of Salman is a direct attack to the very top of Bahraini civil society.

The continued detention of Salman, in a case that lacks any real evidence is yet more undisputable proof that Bahrain is a land without justice. The judiciary is a political tool used by the authorities to lock away peaceful dissenting voices and to shut down any opposition. Any talk of ensuring a fair trial is therefore nothing more than a distraction, in a case that should never have been opened, with an innocent defendant who must be immediately released.

The first session of the trial took place this morning, lasting just over 2 hours. Some international observers and foreign diplomats were given permission to enter the courtroom, although a large number of observers and journalists were turned away.

Sheikh Ali Salman was given the opportunity to speak in his own defence, whilst his defence team delivered a film that the judge refused to allow to be played in court. Salman denied all of the charges against him and began by citing Article 1d of the Bahraini constitution that says, “The system of government in the Kingdom of Bahrain is democratic, sovereignty being in the hands of the people, the source of all powers.” This is the principle within which all of his speeches, demands and political activism have fallen under.

He declared that if by highlighting violations committed by Bahraini security forces is to insult the interior ministry, then Mr. Bassiouni, head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, countless NGO’s and governments must also be guilty of the same offence. He was cut off and interrupted a number of times during his speech by the Civil Prosecution. Salman’s defence team applied for bail but this request was refused and he will remain in detention until at least the 25th February.

Although the Bahraini authorities are attempting to give the impression that all fair procedures are being followed, as well as the politicised nature of the charges and lengthy detention, there are other question marks over the trial. The case is being presided over by Ali Khalifa Aldhahrani, son of the former speaker of Bahraini parliament and a known government loyalist. Defendants in other cases have previously questioned the independence of Aldhahrani, given his political background. Furthermore, the defence team are concerned at being refused access to questioning sessions of the witnesses by the civil prosecution. According to Salman’s family, he has also been denied any writing equipment throughout his detention and meetings with his defence team have been limited.

The Bahrain Justice and Development Movement therefore considers the international community to have an obligation to do more than simply call for a fair trial. They should demand Salman’s immediate release, as the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights have done. Holding the top political leader in the country captive for 2 months is unacceptable by any standards, especially given the disingenuous nature of the charges he faces.

Salman has regularly met with international diplomats both inside Bahrain and in visits to foreign countries. There can be no confusion over his personality or political beliefs. Sheikh Ali Salman is a strict advocate of peaceful protest, direct engagement with all sides and has never once made a call for the downfall of the regime. Indeed he has discouraged violence, the breaking of the law and even pleaded with protesters not to use slogans that target individuals, such as the King. By all accounts Salman is a moderate political figure.

The civil prosecution has thus far failed to produce any single shred of tangible evidence to support their claims that Salman has 1) Incited to change the political system with force and illegal means 2) incited hatred against a sect 3) incited others not to obey the law 4) insulted the ministry of interior. The very reverse of these charges is true and to this extent Sheikh Ali Salman should be commended rather than targeted.

The responsibility now lies with the international community to urge its allies in Bahrain to abandon this destructive political project. Already the detention of Salman has caused fresh protests and renewed instability. 110 parliamentarians around the world have now signed an appeal for the dropping of charges and for his release; governments must now follow this lead.

Simply calling for a fair trial is not enough in this case. Bahrain does not engage in fair trials, only politicised threats, intimidation and silencing, through the façade of the court system.

Sheikh Ali Salman must be immediately released, a new dialogue must begin and Bahrain must partner with the opposition towards a serious political settlement. Any other outcome will result only in further deterioration and instability in a region that is already suffering from both.

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