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Correction: A January 7, 2013 news release on the conviction of 13 prominent political activists in Bahrain incorrectly stated that the court of cassation confirmed the life sentences of 8 of the 13 defendants. In fact, the court confirmed the life sentences of seven of the defendants.

(Beirut) – Bahrain’s Court of Cassation ruling on January 7, 2013, upholding lengthy prison terms of 13 prominent dissidents appears to confirm the inability of Bahrain’s judicial system to protect basic rights. A military court had convicted the dissidents solely for exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.

A Human Rights Watch investigation found that the evidence against them consisted of public statements advocating reforms to curtail the power of the ruling Al Khalifa family and confessions that appeared to have been coerced while the defendants were in incommunicado detention.

“The mind-boggling verdicts in these cases did not mention a single recognizable criminal offense, instead pointing to speeches the defendants made, meetings they attended, and their calls for peaceful street protests in February and March 2011,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain’s Cassation Court has proven its inability to protect the most basic rights guaranteed in Bahrain’s Constitution and the international treaties it has signed.”

The Cassation Court confirmed the life sentences of 8 of the 13 and prison sentences ranging between 5 and 15 years for the others. The High Court of Appeal had upheld the convictions on September 4, 2012, in what amounted to a re-trial that relied on the same evidence the military court had considered.

The Cassation Court ruling ends any possibility of a judicial reversal of the convictions and sentences, and comes despite the government’s pledge to carry out the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which called on authorities to “commute the sentences of all persons charged with offenses involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence.” The commission also called for criminal investigations into the role of security forces, including their high command, which the government has failed to carry out.

Cherif Bassiouni, who headed the independent commission, told Human Rights Watch in November that these accountability recommendations were “either not implemented or implemented only half-heartedly.”

“You can’t say that justice has been done when calling for Bahrain to be a republic gets you a life sentence, and an officer who repeatedly fired on an unarmed man at close range gets only seven years,” Bassiouni said.

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