(Beirut) - Bahraini authorities should immediately halt all proceedings before the special military court and free everyone held solely for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Civilians charged with genuine criminal offenses should be tried in an independent civilian court that meets international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said.
The special military court, the Court of National Safety, on June 12, 2011, held initial sessions in politically motivated cases against opposition members of parliament and a prominent defense lawyer without notifying lawyers or family, and sentenced a young writer to a year in prison. These developments came several days after the Crown Prince, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, met with US President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, to solicit support for a "national dialogue" with opposition forces. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa recently announced that the national assembly speaker, Khalifa al-Dhahrani, who has strongly supported the government crackdown on the largely peaceful street protests, and not the Crown Prince, would lead the dialogue.
"Most defendants hauled before Bahrain's special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Crown Prince may be sincere in his efforts to promote dialogue, but what good is that while back home the government is crushing peaceful dissent and locking up people who should be part of the dialogue."
On June 12, the special military court began hearings against Matar Ibrahim Matar and Jawad Fairouz, former opposition members of parliament, without notifying their lawyers or families. On the evening of May 2, masked plainclothes security officers had arrested the two men, who have since been held incommunicado without access to lawyers or relatives. The two pled not guilty to charges of providing false news to the media and participating in illegal gatherings.
The official Bahrain News Agency reported that the special military court sentenced Ayat Qurmuzi Muhammad, 20, to one year in prison on June 12 for participating in the Pearl Roundabout protests and "inciting hatred of the ruling system" by reading poems criticizing the king and prime minister.
A person familiar with the case of the parliamentarians said that Matar told a family member that he had been kept in solitary confinement for most of his more than 40 days in detention. He and Fairouz were among 18 candidates from the Wifaq National Islamic Society, Bahrain's largest opposition party, elected to the 40-member National Assembly. Matar, 35, had played a key role in compiling information about arrests and disappearances during the crackdown, which began on March 16. All elected Wifaq members of parliament resigned in February to protest the use of lethal force to suppress peaceful street demonstrations.
Mohamed al-Tajer, a prominent defense attorney who was taken from his home on April 15, was also brought before the special military court on June 12. As with Matar and Fairouz, and most of the hundreds of people arbitrarily arrested since mid-March, the government has refused to provide information about al-Tajer's whereabouts and his well-being. Al-Tajer's attorneys, who have repeatedly sought access to him without success, were given no notice of the hearing and so were unable to attend. According to the official news agency, al-Tajer is being charged with "inciting hatred for the regime," engaging in illegal protests, and inciting people to harm police, although Human Rights Watch understands that his attorneys have never been notified of any charges or that al-Tajer would be prosecuted in the special military court.
Human Rights Watch knows of 82 people for whom verdicts had been delivered in the special military court as of June 13, and of several dozen more whose cases are pending. Of the 82, 77 were convicted on some charge; only five were fully acquitted. Convictions for felony charges resulted in sentences ranging from five years to life, as well as two death sentences. Most convictions were for patently political charges such as participating in unauthorized demonstrations and "incitement of hatred against the regime," and resulted in prison sentences ranging from one to five years.
International human rights bodies have determined that trials of civilians before military tribunals violate the right to be tried by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body authorized to monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 2006, has stated that civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.