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(New York) – Bahrain should immediately release the head of the country’s leading political opposition group having failed to present any evidence that justifies his detention. Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary general of Al Wifaq, a legally recognized political society, has been in detention since his arrest on December 29, 2014, and has been charged with various criminal offenses, which include the promotion of violence and defamation of a “statutory body.”

Authorities have not made public which comments led to his arrest and prosecution and they have not brought Salman before a judge to present evidence that supports the charge that he has promoted violence. Human Rights Watch reviewed three of Salman’s recent speeches going back to October 2014 that are allegedly the basis of the charges against him, but could find nothing to support three of the charges or contradict his repeated and explicit disavowals of political violence.

The defamation charge violates international standards on freedom of expression. “When it comes to punishing peaceful critics of the government or ruling family, Bahrain is a serial offender,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman seems calculated to send a message to Bahrainis and the world that political reconciliation and respect for fundamental rights is completely off the table.”

The General Directorate of Criminal Investigation summoned Salman for questioning on December 28, 2014. On December 29, Bahrain’s chief prosecutor, Nayef Yousef Mahmoud, announced that the Public Prosecutor’s Office had remanded Salman in custody pending further investigation, saying that his detention related to “a series of recent statements and pronouncements” and that Salman had violated four articles of Bahrain’s penal code, including article 160. That article provides for a maximum of ten years in prison for “any person who favors or advocates in any manner whatsoever, the overthrow or change of the country’s political, social or economic system with the use of force, intimidation or such other illegal methods.”

The attorney general’s statement alleged that “the content and nature” of Salman’s statements “had escalated significantly from incitement and hate speech, ultimately to threats of military force against the state” and that this included “the imminent option to deploy methods currently used by armed groups operating elsewhere in the region.”

The other charges relate to inciting hatred against segments of society (article 172, which provides for up to two years in jail), incitement to non-compliance with the law (article 173, which provides for up to two years in jail), and defamation of a government institution (article 216, which provides for up to three years in jail).

Persons familiar with the case have informed Human Rights Watch of speeches that will be used to as evidence of alleged incitement to violence. However, Salman has not appeared before a judge in a public hearing to review his detention, and the state has not produced details of how it justifies charging him with incitement to violence on the basis of these speeches. Human Rights Watch on reviewing the speeches could not find any language of direct incitement to violence in any of the speeches, and in fact he promoted peaceful action in two of the speeches.

On October 10, 2014, during his weekly sermon, Salman offered his opinion that one of the lessons following the 2011 Arab uprisings was that “a failure to respond leads to instability and puts regimes at risk of extinction if they do not accept development and change.” He added that Bahrain’s current problems “require a political solution.”

In a sermon speech on December 4, 2014, Salman stated that one of the major contributions of Al Wifaq’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Issa Qassim, was in clarifying the importance of “peaceful action, the repudiation of violence, and a turn away from the military option, which was and remains on the table.” He added that under Qassim’s leadership, “there was a stress on the peaceful option, a repudiation of violence, and a move away from the military option.”

On December 26, Salman addressed the Al Wifaq general conference: “the Bahraini opposition has been encouraged to become like the Syrian opposition and transform the country into a military battleground, but it has remained steadfast in its peaceful [protest] and this clarity of vision is what has prevented Bahrain from being drawn into violence.”

The authorities have produced no evidence to justify how they can claim that reference to the use of force as a political strategy could be construed as advocacy of such a strategy, Human Rights Watch said. In the speeches in question, Salman explicitly repudiates the use of force and stresses his commitment to nonviolence.

On January 5, 2015, Bahrain’s public prosecutor announced that authorities would detain Salman for a further 15 days, pending conclusion of the investigation. The statement said that Salman had acknowledged during questioning that “he had contacted a number of overseas regimes and political organisations to discuss the internal affairs of the Kingdom” and that he “did not inform any official authority in the Kingdom of these communications.” In September 2013, Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa announced an amendment to the 2005 law to require political groups to secure advance government permission before meeting with foreign diplomats in Bahrain and abroad and to be accompanied by a Foreign Ministry representative in such meetings.

Bahraini authorities have prosecuted and imprisoned numerous others solely on the basis of their criticism of the authorities. In 2013, Bahraini authorities charged Al Wifaq’s deputy leader, Khalil Marzooq, with “advocating and inciting terrorism” on the basis of a speech he made at a rally in which he explicitly denounced violence. Marzooq was eventually found not guilty of the charges. A verdict in the “insulting the Ministry of Interior” case of prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab is expected on January 20, 2015. On January 13, a criminal court sentenced a senior member of Al Wifaq, Sayed Jamel Khadem, to 6 months in prison and a fine of 500 Bahraini dinars (US$1300) on the basis of a comment he made on social media on October 9, 2014, in which he implied that the electoral process was rife with corruption.

The right to freedom of expression is outlined in article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bahrain has ratified.

Article 9(3) of the convention states that “it shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” The UN Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitor state compliance with the convention, has outlined in a general comment that “pre‑trial detention should be an exception and as short as possible.” The European Court of Human Rights has outlined that even the initial detention of a person suspected of a crime must be justified on the basis of a reasonable suspicion of having committed the crime.

Since the Bahraini authorities have produced no such evidence despite the fact that all the speeches that Sheikh Salman has given in the last three years are recorded and are in the public domain, they should release Salman immediately, and if none can be produced, drop the charges against him, Human Rights Watch said.

“Bahrain’s allies in London, Paris, and elsewhere have largely stayed silent as Bahrain has filled its jails with the people who hold the key to the political solution the UK and US claim to support,” Stork said. “Who will Bahrain have to detain and on what nonsensical charges before Bahrain’s allies speak out?”

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