(Beirut) – Bahrain authorities should free 13 high-profile dissidents serving long prison terms solely for exercising their human rights. The deteriorating health of Abdullhadi al-Khawaja, one of the 13, who began a hunger strike on August 24, 2014, to protest his unlawful detention, makes the situation especially urgent.

On September 5, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations wrote to the 47 countries that signed a joint statement about Bahrain at the United Nations Human Rights Council in June calling for the “release of all persons imprisoned solely for exercising human rights, including human rights defenders, some of whom have been identified as arbitrarily detained according to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.” The groups urged the 47 countries, in light of the imminent risk to al-Khawaja’s life and in support of human rights and reform in Bahrain, to make public and explicit calls for the immediate release of the 13 protest leaders.

“These men are in jail only because they vigorously called for democratic reforms, an unfair detention that prompted Abdulhadi al-Khawaja to begin his hunger strike,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Washington and London and others that supported the release of these peaceful reform advocates should make their voices heard loud and clear in Manama.”

The 13 men, the leaders of anti-government protests in 2011, have been imprisoned since March 2011 and are among hundreds of political prisoners in Bahraini jails. A Human Rights Watch investigation found that their convictions – including life sentences for three of them – were based solely on their peaceful advocacy of political reform.

In June 2011, a military court convicted 21 leading activists on charges that included broadcasting “false and tendentious news and rumors,” promoting the replacement of Bahrain’s monarchy with a republican form of government, and “inciting” people to engage in demonstrations and marches. The 14 defendants who were in custody – seven were convicted in absentia – appealed the military court verdict. During subsequent proceedings in the Supreme Appellate Court, civilian prosecutors withdrew charges for “crimes linked with freedom of expression,” Human Rights Watch reported.

A Human Rights Watch examination of court documents found that prosecutors continued to pursue charges based solely on the defendants’ advocacy for establishing a republican form of government and for related activities. For example, the court found that al-Khawaja and others had “propagated the overthrow of the state’s political order” by “advocating the declaration of a republic in the country” and that they participated in various protests.

The appeals court nonetheless ruled that all but one of the defendants were guilty of terrorism and affirmed the prison terms that the military courts had pronounced, including life sentences for al-Khawaja and two other men.

On August 30, Bahrain’s public prosecutor charged al-Khawaja’s daughter, Maryam al-Khawaja, with assaulting a police officer at Manama airport after she had flown to Bahrain to visit her father. Immigration officials initially refused to grant her access to the country, saying that her Bahraini citizenship had been revoked. Her lawyer, Mohamed al-Jishi, told Human Rights Watch that when officers tried to confiscate her mobile phone and she refused to give it to them, four officers took it by force and accused her of assault.

The public prosecutor ordered her detention for seven days while the police interviewed witnesses to the alleged assault. Al-Jishi told Human Rights Watch that he was refused access to his client before her interrogation by the public prosecutor. At a short hearing on September 6, Maryam al-Khawaja denied the assault charges and al-Jishi called for her release on bail, arguing that her detention was unnecessary. According to article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, pretrial detention “shall not be the general rule.” The judge ordered her detention for a further 10 days with no explanation for his decision, al-Jishi told Human Rights Watch. On September 7, al-Jishi filed criminal assault charges against the 4 police officers who arrested Maryam al-Khawaja.

“If Bahrain’s allies had pressed Bahrain to release Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and the other prisoners, he and his daughter might not be in Bahraini jails right now,” Stork said. “Countries that say they support human rights and democratic reforms in Bahrain have a responsibility to speak up now.”