(Beirut) – Bahrain’s most prominent opposition figure faces four years in prison on speech-related charges following an unfair trial. The authorities should vacate Sheikh Ali Salman’s conviction on charges that violate the right to freedom of expression and release him without delay.
On June 16, 2015, Bahrain’s Fourth Superior Criminal Court convicted Salman of three speech-related charges and sentenced him to four years in prison. A Human Rights Watch review of trial documents shows that the presiding judge refused to allow Sheikh Salman’s defense lawyers to present potentially exculpatory evidence, including recordings of speeches he was prosecuted for, on the grounds that “the intent of them is to raise doubts about the substantiating evidence that has persuaded the court.” His appeal is scheduled for September 15.
“The court’s refusal to consider crucial defense evidence confirms the political nature of Sheikh Ali Salman’s prosecution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The manifest unfairness of the trial means the authorities should release Salman immediately.”
Salman, in detention since his arrest on December 29, 2014, is secretary general of Al Wifaq, by far the country’s largest legally recognized opposition political society. Bahrain’s chief prosecutor, Nayef Yousef Mahmoud, said that his detention related to “a series of recent statements and pronouncements.” Despite the fact that the charges related to his speeches and sermons, the presiding judge never allowed Salman’s lawyers to present video or audio evidence of the allegedly offending speeches and sermons to the court.
On February 17, 2015, Salman’s lawyers wrote to the chief justice of the court to request that the trial be held in a venue equipped with audio-visual equipment. They received no response.
Instead of reviewing the actual content of Salman’s speeches, the court in its ruling appeared to rely on testimony from Khalid al-Sa’idi, an Interior Ministry officer who, according to the judgment, “said that he himself had listened to recordings of these sermons and speeches.” Al Sa’idi’s written description of Salman’s speeches in the Directorate of Crime Detention report, which formed the basis of the prosecution’s case against Salman, may have misrepresented their content.
In that report, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, al-Sa’idi claimed that during a sermon on October 10, 2014, Salman said, “The people have bigger and bigger force in them. All that you need to do is call forth this force. I’m talking now about military force.” The recording of the actual speech, which can be viewed on the internet, shows that Salman actually said “I am not talking about military force.”
The court acquitted Salman of one charge, advocating the overthrow of the government by force, concluding that the prosecution provided “no certain proof of the advocacy of the use of force, threat, or unlawful means to change the political system.” However, the judge’s refusal to allow the introduction of recordings of actual speeches as evidence constituted a fundamental violation of Salman’s right to a fair trial. Bahraini authorities should release him immediately and either drop the charges or retry Salman on any charges that do not themselves violate the right to freedom of expression or other basic rights, Human Rights Watch said.
Salman’s four year prison sentence is based on three two-year convictions, two of which will run concurrently. He received the maximum sentence of two years in prison for insulting the Interior Ministry, under article 216 of the penal code. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bahrain has ratified, has stated that “states parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”
A separate conviction was related to a speech in which Salman called on Bahrainis to exercise their right to free assembly, in opposition to a law that arbitrarily restricts that right. The court found Salman guilty of “public incitement to disobedience of the law” in violation of article 173 of the penal code, citing article 19 of the ICCPR to argue that the state can restrict the right to free expression where necessary to protect public order. The Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment 34 (2011), insisted that any restriction on freedom of expression “conform to the strict tests of necessity” and “may never be invoked as a justification for the muzzling of any advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets, and human rights.”
The court convicted Salman of “inciting hatred” of naturalized Bahrainis, in violation of article 172 of the penal code.
“The behavior of the court in Sheikh Ali Salman’s case shows again that Bahrain’s justice system has been incapable of delivering justice,” Whitson said.