Bahrain upholds prison sentences for activists
A Bahraini civilian court yesterday upheld the jail terms of 20 opposition leaders convicted of plotting to overthrow the state, including eight prominent activists sentenced to life in prison.
The defendants, seven of whom were tried in absentia, were convicted by a military court in June 2011 of contact with a foreign entity and violations of the constitution, as well as conspiracy to topple the government of Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The 20 have denied all charges against them, saying they wanted only democratic reform.
The convictions stemmed from protests that began in early 2011 and reached their peak in March, when security forces of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council entered Bahrain at the request of the government to help quell widespread unrest in the capital Manama. More than 50 people have been killed in the protests.
Reactions to the verdicts yesterday mirrored the divisions that persist in the nation of about 500,000 citizens, some 70 per cent of whom are Shiite.
Wael Boualai, a public prosecution official, said the convicted Bahrainis were in “intelligence contact” with Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah.
“It is established clearly to us from this verdict that some of the accused had relations and strived to have relations and intelligence contacts with a foreign organisation, which is Hizbollah, which works in the interests of Iran,” Wael Boualai told a news conference, in comments carried by state media.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, said their jailed colleagues were “symbols of the oppressed.”
The defendants were originally tried by a military-led tribunal. In November 2011, however, an investigation into the unrest commissioned by the Bahraini government raised concerns about the use of military courts in civilian cases. A hearing in a civilian court was subsequently granted.
The re-hearing proved the commitment of Bahrain’s judiciary to due process, the official Information Affairs Authority said in a statement issued yesterday. Lawyers for the defendants disagreed.
“There is a political will to deny our rights to properly defend the accused,” said Jalila Al Sayed, claiming that access to their clients and defence witnesses was limited.
Families of the accused were barred from entering the courtroom yesterday. The defendants had boycotted the last several court proceedings in protest.
Leaders from the main Shite opposition bloc Al Wefaq rejected yesterday’s verdicts and said they would complicate their attempts to moderate public opinion on the street.
“We are trying to convince the people that we need to think about reforming the government, rather than overthrowing the government,” former Al Wefaq MP Khalil Marzouk said by telephone from Manama. “But the regime is insisting that they will not provide protection for the people, they will not provide justice or equality.”
After the verdicts were announced, the February 14 Coalition, the largest online group coordinating youth protests, vowed to block streets in the city in protest.
Among those defendants whose life sentences were upheld was human rights activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who staged a 110-day hunger strike earlier this year in protest.
Mr Al Khawaja also has Danish citizenship, and Denmark’s Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal called the decision to uphold the life sentence against him “very disappointing”.
Lawyers for the defendants said they could appeal the verdicts.
Updated: September 4, 2012 04:00 AM