The U.S. Should Speak Out Against the Sentencing of Ibrahim Sharif
By Leah Schulz
On Wednesday, February 24, a Bahraini court sentenced opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif to one year in prison on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime.”
His conviction follows his serving a four-year sentence, which ended in June 2015. The head of the National Democratic Action Society, or Wa’ad, Sharif was initially arrested in March, 2011, for his role in the first wave of mass protests. In prison, Sharif was tortured, held in solitary confinement, and denied contact with his family and lawyer.
Three weeks after his release and two weeks after the Obama Administration announced it was lifting its ban on arms sales to Bahrain, Sharif was rearrested on July 12. The court convicted him of incitement for a speech he gave calling for reform at the commemoration ceremony of a protestor killed by security forces in 2012.
“His crime was a speech,” explains Sharif’s wife, Farida Ghulam. “It was just an idea, a sentence, but 30 agents with guns and video cameras burst into our home at 3 am and took him away.”
Ideas, sentences, and opinions are dangerous in Bahrain as its leaders continue to choose repression over genuine reform and dialogue. Human Rights First noted that “the Bahrain regime is clearly rejecting moderate inclusive politics and remains determined to stifle all peaceful opposition.”
Prior to his conviction, the U.S. tepidly called for the release of Sharif and another imprisoned opposition leader, Sheik Ali Salman of Al-Wefaq. “[I]t is important that the Government of Bahrain and opposition groups work together to implement reforms that meet international standards in these area,” said the State Department.
When Washington resumed arm sales to Bahrain in June, it cited an importance, “to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation. This includes… the recent release of a number of prisoners charged with crimes related to their political association and expression.”
Sharif’s re-arrest and conviction prove that recognizing “meaningful progress” is only helpful when there is meaningful progress to be recognized. The Bahrain government attempts to create only the impression of reform. By citing progress the U.S. upholds a facade that stifles the prospects for actual reform. To be effective, U.S. rhetoric on Bahrain needs to be consistent with reality.
Bahraini activists continue speak out despite the risks because they know it is ultimately within the best interest of their country. As Sharif explained in the speech for which he was jailed, “There is no solution for all these complications, including the economic, social and political conditions, without genuine national reconciliation and genuine reform in this country.”
As Bahrain’s human rights crisis deepens, so will the resolve of its peaceful opposition. The U.S. should learn from Sharif and many others’ unwavering message and back up their stated support for meaningful reform. They can start by strongly condemning Sharif’s sentence.