Two nonviolent political activists in Bahrain face up to seven years in prison for possession of leaflets calling for peaceful political change, Human Rights Watch said today. A court in the capital Manama is scheduled to deliver its verdict in the case tomorrow.

Human Rights Watch called on the Bahraini government to drop charges against Mohamed Sa`id al-Sahlawi and Husain `Abd al-`Aziz al-Hibshi, and grant their immediate and unconditional release. On November 16, state security forces arrested al-Sahlawi, a dentist, and al-Hibshi, an insurance executive, for possessing leaflets calling for the boycott of the last election. The leaflets in question do not condone or encourage violence, but instead called for a boycott of the previous elections and political change through “peaceful legitimate means.”

The public prosecutor charged al-Sahlawi and al-Hibshi under articles 160, 161, and 168 of the Bahraini Penal Code, which criminalize the dissemination and possession of materials that could “damage the public interest.” Their trial began on January 7 before a judge of the Lower Criminal Court.

“The imprisonment of two Bahrainis for trying to express nonviolent political opinions violates freedoms guaranteed under Bahrain’s international obligations and the kingdom’s own constitution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain’s persecution of free expression makes a mockery of its membership in the UN Human Rights Council.”

The Bahraini constitution reaffirms the right of free expression. Article 23 states that “freedom of opinion and scientific research is secured, everyone has the right to express his opinion verbally, in writing or otherwise, in accordance with the terms and conditions prescribed by the law.” The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bahrain acceded in September, states in article 19 that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression” and that “this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”

The imprisonment of individuals merely for having in their possession and copying a document critical of government policy violates their freedom of expression. Although the ICCPR allows for certain restrictions on freedom of information on grounds of national security, the terms of any such restriction must be specific and narrowly tailored to prevent against arbitrariness and to ensure that the internationally recognized human rights of all individuals are protected. The detention of al-Sahlawi and al-Hibshi and the threat of further penal sanctions against them under the vague provisions of article 168 of the Bahraini penal code constitute precisely such an arbitrary restriction on the two activists’ rights under Article 19 of the ICCPR.

In addition, security forces in Sanabis on January 19 attacked peaceful demonstrators protesting the continued incarceration of al-Sahlawi and al-Hibshi, according to the Committee of Solidarity with Activists and Detainees of Conscience in Bahrain. The committee also said that security forces used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the demonstration, causing injuries to demonstrators.

Human Rights Watch called on the Bahraini government to investigate any excessive use of force and ensure that anyone injured by the security forces has access to effective remedies. This is the minimum required by Bahrain’s international legal commitments.

“The Bahraini government should repeal its vague legal provisions on freedom of expression instead of using them to prosecute its critics,” said Whitson. “The authorities should also respect peaceful protest instead of resorting to violence.”