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(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should immediately release the unjustly imprisoned political opposition leaders Ibrahim Sharif and Sheikh Ali Salman.

Protesters hold photos of Sheikh Ali Salman, Bahrain's main opposition leader and Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society, as they march asking for his release in the village of Jidhafs, Bahrain on June 16, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Sharif, secretary general of the secular National Democratic Action Society, faces trial on October 14, 2015, on charges that violate his right to freedom of expression, and should never have been brought. On October 15, a court will hear the appeal of Salman, secretary general of the country’s largest opposition political society, Al Wifaq, against his four-year sentence on speech-related charges.

“Salman and Sharif have consistently supported peaceful political reform and should be at a negotiating table with Bahrain’s government, not languishing behind bars,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Countries that say they support Bahrain’s reform process should make this point publicly.”

The authorities arrested Sharif on July 11, the day after he gave a speech in which he criticized the government and called for political reform. An Interior Ministry statement said that Sharif’s speech had encouraged the overthrow of the government and “incited hatred,” allegedly violating articles 160 and 165 of Bahrain’s penal code. The first charge provides for a maximum 10-year sentence.

In his speech, Sharif condemned the government and called for protest against their actions, but unequivocally repudiated violence, as an excerpt from the speech shows:

The nature of the political movement in this country has been, from the beginning, peaceful and moral. The opposition understands well that violence is the domain of the authority. Violence is where the authority has the upper hand over opposition, but morality is where the opposition has the upper hand. Violence is the authority’s playing field, not ours.

Sharif concluded his speech by saying that “There is no solution in this country but reform.”

The charges against him are wholly without foundation and violate international standards on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

In June 2011, a military court sentenced Sharif to five years in prison on demonstrably spurious “terrorism” charges, and despite allegations he was tortured in pretrial detention. He was released on June 19, just weeks before his re-arrest.

At the first session of Salman’s appeal hearing, on September 15, 2015, the judge, as at previous hearings and without any explanation, refused Salman’s lawyers permission to present potentially exculpatory evidence. Representatives from the United Kingdom and United States embassies were in court at the time to witness the judge’s refusal.

Salman has been in detention since his arrest on December 29, 2014. On June 16, 2015, Bahrain’s Fourth Superior Criminal Court convicted him on three speech-related charges and sentenced him to four years in prison.

Anti-government protesters, holding photos of leader of the opposition Waad party Ibrahim Sharif and photos of Shi'ite scholar Isa Qassim march during an anti-government rally organized by main opposition group al-Wefaq in Budaiya, Bahrain on January 3, 2014.  © 2014 Reuters

Human Rights Watch reviewed the trial documents and found that the presiding judge refused to allow Salman’s defense lawyers to present potentially exculpatory evidence, including recordings of the speeches for which he was prosecuted, on the grounds that “the intent of them is to raise doubts about the substantiating evidence that has persuaded the court.”

Instead of reviewing the actual content of Salman’s speeches, the court in its ruling appeared to rely on hearsay evidence 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 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.” Salman’s four-year prison sentence is based on three separate two-year convictions, two of which will run concurrently. He received the maximum two-year sentence for insulting the Interior Ministry, under article 216 of the penal code. A separate conviction was related to a speech in which Salman called on Bahrainis to exercise their right to peaceful 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. The court also convicted Salman of “inciting hatred” of naturalized Bahrainis, in violation of article 172 of the penal code.

Article 13 of the Arab Charter of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a fair trial “before a competent, independent and impartial court.”

“The US and the UK are fully aware of the gross unfairness of Salman’s trial and the content of Sharif’s peaceful speeches, and this should give them good reason to call publicly for an end to their prosecutions and their immediate release,” Stork said.

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