- Kuwait Times Extra
DUBAI: A Bahrain court yesterday upheld jail terms against 13 leading opposition figures, including seven facing life in prison, over charges of plotting to overthrow the Gulf monarchy, lawyers said. The opposition swiftly condemned the “vindictive” rulings and accused the court of staging “mock trials”, while London-based Amnesty International called for the defendants to be quickly released as the verdicts were “outrageous”. The defendants who played leading roles in month-long protests last year demanding democratic reforms did not turn up in the appeals court, the lawyers said.
“I am very disappointed. This was a shock to people,” said Hussein Jawad, son of Mohammed Jawad, who is serving a 15-year sentence. “If they don’t want life or a future for Bahrain, they will keep the verdicts like this.” Some Sunni loyalists who fear the rise of Shiite Islamists in any government compromise with the opposition praised the ruling. “God is great, God is great,” wrote hardline cleric Mohammed Khalid on Twitter. Hours after the court announcement, riot police outside the capital Manama fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters. Some demonstrators threw firebombs at security forces.
The 13 activists were being retried in a civil court after they were convicted by a special semi-military court, along with seven others who remain at large, of plotting to topple the Sunni ruling family. Another defendant was acquitted. The prosecution had dropped charges against all defendants “related to the freedom of expression” which were considered illegal by the National Safety Court that was set up to try people who took part in the uprising.
A prosecution official said six of the men were guilty of having “intelligence contact” with Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, seeking to overturn Bahrain’s system of government and violating the constitution. “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, Hezbollah, which works in the interests of Iran,” Wael Boualai told a news conference, according to state news agency BNA. Hezbollah denies any involvement in the protests in Bahrain, but is critical of the government’s handling of the unrest.
Among those sentenced is activist Abdulhadi Khawaja who ended in June a 110-day hunger strike. Also sentenced were Hasan Musheime and Abdel Jalil Al-Sankis, both leaders of the banned Shiite movement, Haq, as well as Sunni leftist Ibrahim Sharif, who heads the secular Waed group. “Today’s ruling is a clear proof of the fake justice in Bahrain,” said the main opposition groups in a statement. “Those are politically motivated verdicts that have no judicial value, because they have been based on a vindictive methodology,” they said. “There is no state in Bahrain. It is a tyrannical authority, and an oppressive government that tries to look like a (political) system while hiding security apparatuses that terrorise the people to silence its demands for democracy.”
The main Shiite formation, Al-Wefaq, said it was a “black day for justice in Bahrain”. “Those wrongful rulings will only strengthen the determination of the people to continue their revolution to the end,” the group’s leader, Ali Salman, wrote on his Twitter page. Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said the court ruling “only compounds the travesty of justice that has characterized this case from the beginning”. “Bahrain’s rulers have not shown that these men committed any criminal offense other than to call and demonstrate peacefully for a change of government,” he said.
Amnesty too lashed out at the verdicts, saying they must be “overturned and the activists immediately and unconditionally released”. “Today’s court decision is another blow to justice and it shows once more that the Bahraini authorities are not on the path of reform but seem rather driven by vindictiveness”, said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. Sahraoui said Bahrain’s human rights record will be up for scrutiny at the UN Human Rights Council in September. “Bahrain cannot get a free pass at the UN Human Rights Council and we urge states to tell the Bahraini authorities that today’s verdict crosses a red line and that they can no longer be considered credible partners,” said Sahraoui.
Jane Kinninmont, of London’s Chatham House, said the verdict sent a tough message to protesters as well as Western countries which have urged Manama to compromise with its opponents. “The authorities may be trying to show their strength ahead of a planned dialogue with political societies,” she argued, saying this could backfire if protests and clashes escalate. “This may also send a message to the international community about the limits of pressure. Strong Saudi backing for Bahrain has made it less interested in what the West has to say.”
Though US officials are keen for a release of prisoners to help restore calm, Washington has avoided irritating Manama with public calls over the uprising leaders case. The presence of US warships helps ensure a free flow of oil exports from the Gulf, which Iran has threatened to blockade if the stand-off with Western powers over its nuclear energy program turns into military confrontation. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal said the verdict was disappointing and called for the release Khawaja, who also has Danish nationality. “It’s important that the international community continue to make Bahrain aware of the importance of the country respecting basic human rights,” Sovndal said in a written comment.
In June last year, the specially formed tribunal handed down lengthy jail terms against the 21 mostly Shiite activists after convicting them of plotting to overthrow the regime. Ten months later, Bahrain’s highest appeals court ordered a retrial. Bahrain came under strong criticism from international human rights organisations over last year’s crackdown on the Shiite-led protests. An international panel commissioned by King Hamad to probe the government’s clampdown found out that excessive force and torture had been used against protesters and detainees. The Sunni-ruled kingdom, home to the US Fifth Fleet and strategically situated across the Gulf from Iran, has continued to witness sporadic Shiite-led demonstrations, mostly outside the capital, since it crushed the protest movement in March last year. – Agencies
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