(Beirut) – A Bahraini rights activist jailed for ripping up a photo of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in court on October 14, 2014, should be released immediately. Bahrain should drop all freedom-of-expression related charges against the activist, Zainab al-Khawaja, who is eight months pregnant and has been charged with insulting the king. Al-Khawaja was in court to face charges relating to two previous incidents in which she also tore up photographs of the king as a form of protest. She was arrested again in the courtroom and, on October 15, the public prosecutor charged her with insulting the king and ordered her detention for another seven days.
“Zainab al-Khawaja has exposed the thin skin of Bahraini authorities, armed again only with a photograph,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It says much about the state of the justice system in Bahrain that you’re more likely to end up in jail for ripping up a photo than you are for shooting an unarmed protester.”
Zainab al-Khawaja is the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence in relation to his calls for political reform in Bahrain. Her mother, Khadija al-Mousawi, told Human Rights Watch that at the start of court proceedings on October 14 her daughter addressed the judge, stating that “It is my right, and my responsibility as a free person, to protest against oppression and oppressors."
She then took a photo of King Hamad, ripped it up, and placed it in front of the judge, who immediately adjourned the hearing. Authorities arrested her immediately and she spent the night in Isa Town detention center.
In September 2012, she was sentenced to two months in prison for ripping up a photo of King Hamad. In early February 2013 she was imprisoned on charges that included illegal gathering and insulting police officers. She was released in February 2014. She is now facing six outstanding charges, five of which, according to information provided by her lawyer, clearly violate her right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said.
In April 2014, King Hamad ratified Law 1/2014 which amends article 214 of the penal code to provide for a maximum jail term of 7 years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini Dinars (US$26,500) for offending the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of international human rights experts that reviews state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain has ratified, has concluded, in relation to article 19 of the covenant, on freedom of expression, that “The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties, albeit public figures may also benefit from the provisions of the Covenant. Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
Another prominent Bahraini rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, is in jail awaiting trial on October 19 on charges that he “insulted” the Interior and Defense ministries, in social media comments. The charge carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.
“Where are the voices of the United States and United Kingdom, the supposed global champions of human rights, when it comes to Bahrain, a serial offender when it comes to punishing free speech,” Stork said.