Protesters hold posters with pictures of political activist Ibrahim Sharif and other political prisoners as they march to demand their release during a rally organized by Bahrain's main opposition group Al Wifaq in Al A'aali village, Bahrain on November 1, 2013.

(Washington) – Bahraini authorities should immediately release the political activist Ibrahim Sharif, who was arrested on July 11, 2015, in connection with a speech in which he peacefully criticized the government and called for political reform. The United States should reverse its June 29 decision to lift restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain.

Authorities had released Sharif, secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society, on June 19, nine months before he completed a 5-year sentence. Less than 48 hours after the June 29 announcement, though, Bahraini authorities arrested Majeed Milad, a senior member of the political association Al Wifaq, and charged him with calling for illegal protests. He remains in detention and on trial.

“Bahrain’s revolving prison doors for peaceful activists make it clear that it is hardly serious about changing its repressive ways,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless Bahrain immediately and unconditionally frees Sharif and Milad, the US should reverse the decision to lift restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain.”

The Obama administration said when it lifted the arms restrictions that authorities there had taken steps “conducive to reform and reconciliation” referencing the release of unnamed political prisoners.

An Interior Ministry statement after Sharif was re-arrested said that Sharif had encouraged the overthrow of the government and “incited hatred” in a July 10 speech. Human Rights Watch reviewed the speech and found it consisted solely of peaceful criticism of the government and calls for political reform.

On July 13, authorities announced that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa had pardoned the prominent the human rights activist Nabeel Rajab for health reasons. On May 15, a court of appeal had upheld his six-month sentence for “offending national institutions” after he criticized the government on social media.

The US government had made repeated calls for his release, and on June 13, the United Kingdom government expressed its “concern” at the decision to uphold his conviction and called on Bahrain to respect freedom of expression. On July 9, the European Parliament adopted an emergency resolution on the rights situation in Bahrain and on Rajab’s case in particular. Rajab may still face charges that relate to other critical comments he made on social media.

Bahrain’s revolving prison doors for peaceful activists make it clear that it is hardly serious about changing its repressive ways. Unless Bahrain immediately and unconditionally frees Sharif and Milad, the US should reverse the decision to lift restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain.

Joe Stork

deputy Middle East director

Sharif faces a maximum 10-year jail sentence under article 160 of Bahrain’s penal code if convicted of inciting overthrow of the government. Sharif was sentenced to five years in a military court in June 2011 despite allegations he was tortured in pretrial detention.

He was one of 21 defendants Bahraini authorities alleged had been involved with a group whose purpose was to replace Bahrain’s monarchy with a republican form of government. The Supreme Appellate Court, hearing the appeal of 14 of those defendants, found that Sharif chose to “advocate the declaration of a republic in the country.” They were found guilty of terrorism.

The court also found the defendants guilty of attempting to change the constitution and monarchical system “by force,” saying that “force” does not necessarily entail “the use of weapons; rather force may be exercised in other actions, such as organizing and leading popular demonstrations as a tool to pressure the government.”

Sharif had been eligible for release in January under article 349 of Bahrain’s code of criminal procedure.

“Sharif’s fate is yet again in the hands of a justice system that labels its opponents and critics terrorists,” Stork said. “Rajab’s release should not be used as an excuse to justify resuming arms sales to Bahrain while Sharif and others are still languishing in Bahraini jails.”