14 September 2020 – Prominent Bahraini defence lawyer Abdullah Al-Shamlawi will not face jail time over social media posts, after Bahrain’s Third High Criminal Court suspended his sentence on charges of “inciting hatred of a religious sect,” the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD) said today. A second charge of “misusing a telecommunications appliance” was dropped after Al-Shamlawi reached a settlement with the complainant.
Prior to today’s verdict, BIRD and Human Rights Watch issued a joint-statement stating that “Bahraini authorities should not contest the appeal of Abdullah al-Shamlawi… to vacate his conviction and eight-month prison sentence for tweets.”
Al-Shamlawi was initially convicted on 30 June 2020 over a number of tweets he posted between 2018 and 2019. The charges involved two September 2019 tweets in which al-Shamlawi expressed critical views on religious practices related to Ashura, the most important date in the Shi’a religious calendar.
The court also convicted al-Shamlawi of “deliberately caus[ing] inconvenience to others by using telecommunication devices” for his 2018 tweet regarding an article in the pro-government newspaper Al Ayam in which he incorrectly said that the Bahraini featured in the article was a naturalized South Asian. Prosecutors interviewed al-Shamlawi about the tweet at the time, but brought no charges. The decision to prosecute him almost two years later on this dubious charge, even though other people who at the time had posted the same misinformation were not charged, indicates an apparent determination to punish al-Shamlawi under any available pretext, the organizations said.
Al-Shamlawi has defended human rights activists and prisoners of conscience for more than 40 years. Al-Shamlawi was also part of the legal team defending Al-Wefaq, the main Shi’a opposition group in Bahrain, which was banned in 2016 by the government.
Al-Shamlawi’s prosecution reflects a pattern of official harassment of lawyers who criticize the government. In May 2019, the authorities charged a prominent human rights lawyer, Abdullah Hashim, with sharing “fake news” for eight tweets between May 2017 and April 2019 highlighting government corruption and other social and political issues in Bahrain. He is expecting the final verdict on his case on September 29.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD), commented: “That Al-Shamlawi was ever brought to trial for these bogus charges demonstrates the judicial harassment faced by Bahraini lawyers who refuse to toe the government line. Bahrain must end its persecution and imprisonment of individuals who dare to express critical views.”