4 November 2018 – Today, Bahrain’s High Court of Appeals overturned the acquittal of the leader of Bahrain’s dissolved opposition party Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, thereby allowing the Public Prosecution’s appeal. The Court sentenced him to life imprisonment according to his family and lawyer.
On 21 June 2018, Sheikh Salman was acquitted by Bahrain’s High Criminal Court, alongside his two co-defendants and leading figures in the Al-Wefaq party, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al-Aswad. Sheikh Salman’s co-defendants were tried in absentia.
In November 2017, Sheikh Salman was charged with maintaining intelligence contacts with Qatar, revealing national defence secrets and accepting financial sums all of which undermine the “political, economic position and national interests with the purpose of overthrowing the regime” in Bahrain.
The charges are based on an audio recording of a phone call between Sheikh Salman and the then Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thanian, which was broadcasted by Bahrain’s state television in August 2017.
The verdict arrives in time for the elections for the Council of Representatives of Bahrain’s National Assembly on 24 November 2018. The Council of Representatives is the only elected governing body in the Kingdom.
Commenting, BIRD’s Director of Advocacy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei: “This is a political persecution and it can’t happen without authorisation by the highest authority in the Alkhalifa family. Despite the ongoing scrutiny on the Gulf region, with Saudi Arabia being under the spotlight for its brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Bahrain has made a decision that reeks of arrogance. While the UK stays shamefully silent, the US has called for Sheikh Salman’s release. However, they have failed to use their leverage to translate their words into actions to get him out of prison”.
Elections in Bahrain
On 24 November 2018, there will be elections for the Council of Representatives of Bahrain’s National Assembly, which is the only elected governing body in the Kingdom. Amid the increasing crackdown on civil society and human rights, there are growing concerns regarding the legitimacy and credibility of the elections.
Furthermore, over the last few years, the Government of Bahrain has eliminated all political space. This includes the arbitrary dissolution of Bahraini opposition parties, Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad. Key political leaders, including Sheikh Salman, are imprisoned for various charges.
In May 2018, the Bahraini government enacted an amendment to the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights. The legislation now bars anyone who has belonged to the aforementioned political parties and those who have spent more than six months in prison from running for elected office. The law effectively bans major opposition figures from holding political office and affects tens of thousands of people.
Freedom of expression is not tolerated by the Bahraini authorities. Al-Wasat, the only independent newspaper, was forcibly closed in 2017 and at least 15 journalists are currently imprisoned. Human rights defenders are routinely targeted; prominent human rights defenders such as Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja are currently incarcerated for their work.
These developments have occurred despite the provision of parliamentary training to the Council of Representatives Secretariat in financial year 2015-16 from the UK through its technical assistance programme.
The Qatari Case and the 2011 BICI Report
Paragraph 527 of the 2011 report by Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), cited opposition sources suggested that the then Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, could act as the sponsor of a proposed United States initiative. Opposition sources also indicated that the State of Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, attempted to mediate between the Bahraini Government and opposition parties in the following days, and that this initiative was accepted by the opposition but rejected by the Government.
However, the mediating role of Qatar never arose as an issue before the Qatari crisis of 2017.
The Freedom of Expression Case
Sheikh Salman is currently imprisoned in Jau Prison as a result of a separate conviction related to speeches he delivered in 2014 against parliamentary elections that his party boycotted. Some of Sheikh Salman’s charged included publicly inciting hatred, civil disobedience and for promoting change within the ruling government.
After being arrested on 28 December 2014, he was initially sentenced to four years in June 2015, and increased to nine-year prison sentence by the appeal court and then reduced back to four years on 3 April 2017 by the highest court,. In reality he was convicted in relation to peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, following a grossly unfair trial.
Sheikh Salman was subjected to degrading treatment in Jau Prison earlier this year, alongside other 11 opposition activists and human rights defenders.
On 21 June 2018, following Sheikh Salman’s acquittal, the spokesperson for the State Department urged the Bahraini prosecutors not to pursue an appeal of the judge’s ruling, and called on the Government of Bahrain to release Sheikh Salman from prison.
On 15 June 2018, in response to a parliamentary question on Sheikh Salman’s case, UK MENA Minister Alistair Burt merely stated that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had “raised the case at a senior level with the Government of Bahrain”. The Minister, however, has failed to publicly condemn the charges.
In February 2015, five UN experts expressed concern for the arrest and detention of Sheikh Salman, and called for his release.
In September 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) officially declared Sheikh Salman to be arbitrarily detained. The WGAD cited both freedom of expression and due process concerns, requested for his immediate release and that he receive his enforceable right to compensation.