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(Brussels) – European Union (EU) High Representative Catherine Ashton should pursue with Bahrain the immediate release of 13 high-profile activists and others detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights. Ashton will attend an EU-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministerial meeting in Bahrain on June 30, 2013.

The 13 activists, two of whom hold citizenship in EU countries, are serving long-term or life prison sentences solely for exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. On June 27, the EU’s special representative on human rights, Stavros Lambrinidas, tweeted a call for release of the activists after he visited some of them in Jaw prison in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. But the call has not been issued in more specific terms, no names have been publicly mentioned, and the EU high representative remains silent.

“If human rights are truly at the center of the EU’s foreign relations as its ministers have pledged, then the high representative and member states need to show it at the EU-GCC meeting by vigorously pressing for the release of the Bahraini activists,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “If they don’t, they will consign human rights to the margins of the EU’s foreign policy, undermine their own credibility, and leave the activists they had promised to support suffering in prison.”

The European Parliament adopted a strong resolution on January 17 calling on EU member states and the EU high representative to “actively push for the release of the imprisoned activists.” On June 21, Members of the European Parliament tabled a formal question asking Ashton “what precise efforts” she had made over the past six months to carry out the resolution. They asked if she would commit to do all in her power, “in coordination with the 27 EU Member States, to secure the release of those wrongfully imprisoned in Bahrain including through publicly calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all the activists and human rights defenders in Bahrain prior to the EU-GCC meeting?”

One year ago on June 25, 2012, EU foreign ministers adopted an EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy. In it, they pledged the EU’s commitment to “place human rights at the centre of its relations with all third countries, including its strategic partners” and “to throw its full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy, and human rights throughout the world.”

But the EU high representative and EU member states have failed to make collective, explicit calls for the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned Bahraini activists. Three of them – Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Zainab al-Khawaja, and Mohammed al-Muqdad – are dual nationals of Bahrain and EU member states, and two of the three are among the group of 13 serving long-term sentences.

Denmark’s foreign affairs minister, Villy Søvndal, has told the Danish media that he will go to Bahrain and press for the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Danish citizen. His promise to act is a positive move, but the EU should use its greater collective leverage to increase pressure on the Bahraini authorities to free the activists, Human Rights Watch said.

By contrast to the Danish approach, on June 18, UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, who will also attend the EU-GCC meeting in Bahrain, told a UK parliamentary inquiry into British relations with Bahrain that “all charges relating to freedom of expression had been dropped” by Bahrain authorities. Official Bahraini court documents, however, make clear that the 13 activists were all convicted and sentenced on charges solely related to their peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

“EU member states should use their collective muscle to press for the release of the EU citizens and the other activists,” Leicht said. “If the EU leaves individual member states to fight in their own corner alone, they will have to face a coalition of gulf states whose actions reveal scant regard for the human rights the EU claims to champion.”

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