Bahrain Places Human Rights Defender Ali al-Hajee on Trial in Apparent Reprisal for Requesting Lift of Travel Ban

Bahrain has placed former political prisoner and human rights defender Ali Al-Hajee, who spent over 10 years in prison, on trial after he approached officials to lift his travel ban upon receiving confirmation that his alternative sentencing had been suspended.

The arrest appears to be a clear retaliation for Mr Al-Hajee’s insistence to have his travel ban lifted, which remained in place despite the suspension of his alternative sentence. Despite extensive follow-ups with numerous government departments and officials, the travel ban was not lifted, and, on 14 November 2023, Mr Al-Hajee was briefly arrested and detained for one day.  

On 24 April 2024, he was formally charged with “violating a ban on restricted areas and facilities” and is set to appear before the First Lower Criminal Court on 5 May 2024. If convicted, he could face “A punishment of imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding BD 100, or either penalty” under Article 135 of the Bahrain Penal Code 1976

The legal limbo that Mr Al-Hajee was placed under and the failure to lift the travel ban despite the suspension of his sentence shows the impact of unfair application of alternative sentencing which extends the punishment even after an inmate has served their sentence. 

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Advocacy Director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), commenting: 

“Ali Hajee’s simple act of requesting the Ministry of Interior to enforce the decision of the court and public prosecution to lift his travel ban has led to politically motivated persecution. 

The targeting of Ali Al-Hajee as a human rights defender for demanding that his travel ban be lifted indicates that either the Interior Ministry intended to continue imposing the travel ban without a legal basis or its bureaucracy is unable to implement judicial decisions effectively.

Bahrain must uphold the rule of law, dismiss the case immediately, and allow him to travel and seize its persecution of human rights defenders.” 

Update – 5 May 2024

On 5 May 2024 (Sunday), a hearing session at Bahrain’s First Minor Criminal Court was held at 2 PM Bahrain local time. Before the hearing, Mr Al-Hajee released this message: 

During the hearing, the judge laid out the charges against him, of entering a restricted area, which Mr Al-Hajee denied, stating that he had gone to the door of the Interior Ministry, as instructed by the office of the public prosecution, to request an official to help him. 

His lawyer requested the judge to:

    1. Order his file to be disclosed to the defence with time to review and respond 
    2. Lift the travel ban

The judge asked Mr Al-Hajee’s lawyer to submit a formal request for the removal of the travel ban and adjourned the hearing to allow time for the defence to review the documents and respond. 

The next hearing is scheduled for 12 May 2024 at 2PM Bahrain local time at the First Lower Criminal Court.

Update – 12 May 2024

On 12 May 2024, Mr Al-Hajee attended a hearing at Bahrain’s First Criminal Court on charges related to entering a restricted area that appear to be politically motivated and in reprisal for him exercising his fundamental human rights.

The hearing was postponed, to be held on Wednesday, 22 May 2024, for final sentencing.

During the hearing, Mr Al-Hajee’s defence categorically denied the charges, arguing that he did not fulfil the criteria of the offence, in neither material nor intent, and called for his acquittal on the grounds of insufficient evidence to establish guilt beyond certain doubt.

The public prosecution has sought to intensify the punishment through Articles 76 and 78 of the Penal Code, which together could result in a maximum penalty of up to two years imprisonment, as stipulated under the addition of “aggravated circumstances” due to “recidivism”.

Update – 22 May 2024

On 22 May 2024, Ali al-Hajee  attended a hearing at Bahrain’s First Criminal Court on charges related to entering a restricted area in reprisal for visiting the Interior Ministry to request that his travel ban be lifted, requesting them to implement a court order confirming his sentence was suspended.  

The judge denied the request made by Ali Al-Hajee’s lawyer to reopen the case for additional defence arguments. 

The final hearing was postponed to Wednesday, 29 May 2024.  

Additional substantive grounds – denied consideration by the Court 

Mr Al-Hajee’s lawyer sought to submit additional substantive grounds for the defence, arguing that the charges levied do not apply to the incident in question (on November 14 2023) because:

(i) Article 135 (iv) specifies the area must be designated by “military authorities,” indicating an official designation by the Bahrain Defence Forces, which is responsible for external state security, rather than internal security which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior.

(ii) If the area of concern was designated as a prohibited site by the “military authorities,” then why is it accessible by the public?  

(iii) The defence will request a copy of the military authority’s designating the area as prohibited, which they strongly believe does not exist. In case it exists, why it was not announced to the public.

Final Ruling – 29 May 2024

On 29 May 2024, Bahrain’s First Lower Criminal Court acquitted human rights defender Ali Al-Hajee on charges of entering a prohibited area. 

The politically motivated charges came in reprisal for Mr Al-Hajee visiting Bahrain’s Interior Ministry to request that his travel ban be lifted and implement a court order confirming his sentence was suspended.  

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Advocacy Director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), commenting:

“While it is a relief that Ali Al-Hajee was acquitted, the case should never have gone to court in the first place. Authorities should now allow him to travel without any further restrictions.”

Ali Al-Hajee, commenting: 

“I am hugely relieved by this decision having already served 10 years imprisonment over political charges. It’s high time that I am allowed to continue my life with complete freedom and for the travel ban on me to be lifted.”

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