By Leah Schulz
Last week the State Department released its long overdue assessment of Bahrain’s implementation of the recommendations laid out in the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. The BICI report was the product of an investigation into the regime’s crackdown on the 2011 democratic uprising. The Bahrain government had committed to following the report’s recommendations, but sadly, that progress has yet to be seen.
Recommendation 1722h requires the government to free those imprisoned on charges that violate their freedom of expression. Cherif Bassiouni, the commissioner of the BICI report, cited this as one of Bahrain’s “top priorities.” While Bahrain has no shortage of problems to address, Bassiouni is right to call out this issue. Bassiouni cites “16 high-level persons” convicted on the basis of “their political beliefs and actions, based on freedom of opinion and expression.”
While he does not explicitly name the 16 high-level persons, they are thought to include the political opposition and civil society leaders jailed in 2011. And over the last year, Bahrain has continued to convict and sentence people for peacefully expressing their views, often falsely accusing them of inciting violence.
On May 30 a Bahraini court of appeal more than doubled the prison sentence for opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman. The charges were related to a series of speeches he gave 2014, which the prosecution claims promoted violence. However, the judge refused play the recordings of the very speeches for which he was prosecuted. Copies of Salman’s speeches are available online and show him explicitly repudiating violence.
Another prominent political figure in jail is Ibrahim Sharif. In February 2016 a Bahraini court sentenced Sharif, of the secular Waad party, to one year in prison on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime,” based on a speech he gave calling for reform. Like in Salman’s case, authorities wrongly accused Sharif advocating for violence in order to punish him for encouraging democracy.
While Bahrain has released some human rights defenders imprisoned for exercising free speech, instead of dropping their charges as 1722h requires, they often remain at risk of rearrest.
Zainab Al Khajawa, who was imprisoned on a number of freedom expression related charges, was released May 31st—53 days after Bahraini authorities promised her freedom to U.S. officials. Fearing rearrest, Al Khawaja was forced out of Bahrain.
Nabeel Rajab who was similarly released from prison after serving a sentence for speech related charges was rearrested on June 13. He remains detained on charges of “spreading false news.”
All prisoners, whether Bassiouni’s chosen 16 or not, high profile or not, jailed for peacefully expressing their beliefs should be unconditionally released.