(New York) - Bahrain's use of televised, coerced testimony and other serious flaws in the criminal trial of an opposition leader and others shows contempt for the right to a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch said that all coerced testimony in the trial of Hassan Mushaima, leader of the political opposition group Haq, and 34 others should be withdrawn and that those not charged with a genuine criminal offense should be freed.
"The televised statements of young activists detained without access to lawyers smacks of coercion and should be tossed out of the courtroom," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Their use makes a mockery of government claims of providing Haq members a fair trial."
On December 28, 2008, state-controlled television showed a program in which young opposition activists who had been held incommunicado for weeks "confessed" to committing violence at a Haq rally ahead of Bahrain national holidays on December 16 and 17. The broadcast accused Mushaima of inciting violence as part of a plot to overthrow the government during these holidays.
The televised testimony is a key element in the prosecution's case involving various charges against Mushaima and 34 others. The trials began in February and resume on March 24, in Manama, the capital.
Large portions of the February 23 court proceedings were omitted from the official trial record, said a defense lawyer, Jalila al-Sayed, including detailed torture allegations by many of the 19 defendants then present. She told Human Rights Watch that they testified that they had been beaten with water hoses and on their feet, and tortured with electricity, especially on their genitals. Several reportedly said all their clothes were removed, and one alleged being threatened with sexual assault.
In the broadcast, which is accessible on the internet, several young men are shown and identified by name, admitting to throwing stones, shouting slogans, and setting street fires. They repeat allegations that Mushaima, the secretary-general of Haq, prompted and persuaded them to "continue the fight." The broadcast was divided into five sections, one of which was headlined "Terrorism and the Industry of Death" (al-irhab wa sina'at al mowth). Some of the detainees said, though, in a February 23 court session that their confessions were coerced.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, defended the broadcast. "With all the facts that we have we believe that we were entitled to put the public at firsthand knowledge," he told Human Rights Watch. Mai Al Khalifa, the minister of culture and information, told the media that the ministry was complying with a "judicial order" of the public prosecutor when it broadcast the "confessions."
Some of the 35 defendants were arrested before the holidays, after a Haq-sponsored rally in Manama that ended with stone-throwing and tires being set on fire in the streets. Three of the defendants, including Mushaima, were arrested without warrants at their homes in the early hours of January 26. The others are Abd al-Jalil al-Singace, who heads Haq's human rights unit, and Muhammad al-Moqdad, a cleric. The three face various charges, the most serious being "inciting violent overthrow of the government using terrorist methods."
Thirteen are believed to be abroad and are being tried in absentia. Human Rights Watch opposes in absentia trials in virtually all circumstances as violating the right of defendants to challenge the evidence against them.
Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that none of those in custody were informed of the charges against them until February 10. Nineteen of the 35 defendants, including Mushaima, remain in solitary confinement, a lawyer for the group told Human Rights Watch.
Mushaima faces the most serious charge of "forming, leading, providing necessary monies, and training an illegal organization whose purpose is the advocacy of disrupting provisions of the law and which uses terrorism as one of its methods," under article 6 of Bahrain's counterterrorism law (58/2006). He has been ordered to remain in detention until the court reaches its decision, and faces possible life imprisonment if convicted.
He and Singace are also charged under article 165 of the 1976 Penal Code with "inciting hatred against the system of government, using violence to distort the government, discrediting the government's reputation through publications and speeches, and trying to convince others to join in this effort." Singace also has been charged under the 1976 Penal Code with "joining an organization outside the provisions of the law whose purpose is the advocacy of disrupting provisions of the Constitution and the law and to knowingly undertake terrorist operations."
Bahrain's obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights include the right to a fair trial. Bahrain has also ratified the Convention against Torture, which prohibits torture and other ill-treatment under all circumstances and prohibits the use of statements made as a result of torture as evidence in legal proceedings.
"The overly broad and ambiguous language of Bahrain's counterterrorism law and penal code allow the government to criminalize the basic rights to freedom of expression and association," Stork said. "The government, for political purposes, seems to have turned a matter of stone throwing and lit tires into a conspiracy to overthrow the government without any evidence to prove it."
Correction March 07, 2009
In our March 23 press release, "Bahrain: Coerced Testimony Taints Trial," we incorrectly stated that the Haq organization had sponsored the gatherings in mid-December that resulted in clashes between demonstrators and security forces; in fact it was the Committee of Victims of Torture that had called for the gatherings. We also incorrectly stated that security forces on January 26 arrested Hassan Mushaima, Abd al-Jalil al-Singace, and Muhammad al-Moqdad without arrest warrants; the office of the public prosecutor had in fact issued warrants for their arrest the previous day.