28 January 2019 – Today, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation upheld the life sentence against the leader of Bahrain’s dissolved opposition party Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, convicted on politically motivated charges related to espionage.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) condemns today’s decision in the strongest term and urges the Bahraini authorities to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of Sheikh Salman.
Today’s verdict marks the end of a long, flawed trial. 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. On 4 November 2018, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
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.
Commenting, BIRD’s Director of Advocacy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei said: “This is political revenge and an insult to justice. Punishing peaceful dissidents for leading protests against the corrupt ruling family has nothing to do with justice. This verdict shames Bahrain’s rulers and their allies in traditional western democracies, namely US and UK.”
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 has been subjected to degrading treatment in Jau Prison 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 7 November 2018, the US State Department expressed “concern” for the decision to overturn Sheikh Salman’s acquittal.
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 (FCO) had “raised the case at a senior level with the Government of Bahrain”. The Minister, however, had failed to publicly condemn the charges.
On 4 November 2018, after Sheikh Salman’s acquittal was overturned, Alistair Burt issued a statement saying he is “very concerned” for the sentencing but failed again to call for his release.
On 22 January 2019, in response to a topical question on Bahraini imprisoned human rights defenders and political leaders, including Sheikh Salman, Alistair Burt said “There are independent processes in order to oversee the activities of the courts in Manama” and “…the United Kingdom is very involved in seeing greater progress there.”
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.