(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should immediately release the human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja. Police detained al-Khawaja on March 14, 2016, to serve five sentences totalling three years and one month, four of which violate her right to free expression and one of which resulted from an unfair trial.
“Zainab al-Khawaja’s imprisonment will rightly bring shame on Bahrain and they should find no tacit support for their actions from their allies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Danish and European Union authorities should be making unequivocal calls for her immediate release, as should Washington.”
Al-Khawaja, who is also a Danish citizen, is being held in Isa Town women’s prison. Her 16-month-old child, Abdulhadi, is with her there.
Al-Khawaja faces sentences totalling two years and four months, for insulting the king or public employees. The four charges, resulting from tearing up pictures of the king or criticizing the police, clearly violate her right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said.
The trial documents of the fifth case, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, show that the presiding judge who convicted al-Khawaja of being “present in a restricted area” and “insulting police officers” refused to allow her defense lawyers to present potentially exculpatory evidence, in the form of a video recording of the incident. On February 2, a court of appeal upheld the sentence.
The sentence resulted from her attempt in August 2014 to visit her father, the prominent rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is serving a life sentence for a demonstrably unfair conviction for “terrorism.” He was at that time on a liquids-only hunger strike, which he said in a statement to his family was “in protest against the continuation of arbitrary arrest and detention” in Bahrain.
Her lawyers submitted a video of the incident during her trial and contended that al-Khawaja was outside the visitors’ section of the rehabilitation department in Jau Prison, an area that is open to the public, not in a restricted area, as the charges alleged. The court refused to accept the video as evidence, saying it was “taken without prior judicial permission.”
Article 135 of the Bahrain penal code provides for a jail sentence of up to one year for anyone who “enters” any “premises or place or factory where work is undertaken in the interest of defending country and where admission of the public is not permitted.” A Bahraini lawyer whom Human Rights Watch consulted about the incident said al-Khawaja’s conviction on the basis of article 135 for such an act was neither understandable nor predictable, which would indicate that it was arbitrary.
The video also appears to indicate that al-Khawaja addresses the officers as agents of the state:
As long as you are wearing this uniform, you are representing the government that has been oppressing us; has oppressed us from birth until we die. So don’t come and talk to me now. You tortured my father, you tortured my uncle, you tortured my husband, you tortured my sister’s husband, you didn’t leave anyone behind.
On December 3, 2015, a court of appeal upheld two sentences of two months each for “destroying public property” relating to the other charges. Al-Khawaja had ripped up pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on May 4 and May 6, 2012, while she was in Interior Ministry detention for charges relating to illegal gathering and the alleged assault of a police officer. At the same court session in December 2015, the court sentenced her to a year in prison for “humiliating and insulting a public employee” when she criticized police officers who, she said, were mistreating a detainee when she was in detention in 2012.
The additional one-year charge stems from another incident in which she tore up photos of the king during a court hearing on October 14, 2014. That resulted in a three-year sentence for “insulting the king,” which the court of appeal reduced to one year on October 21, 2015.
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 seven 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.
Zainab al-Khawaja’s sister, Maryam, told Human Rights Watch that since October 2014, her sister has refused to attend trial sessions and has asked her lawyer not to represent her in court because she does not believe that the courts in Bahrain conform with international fair trial standards. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances of unfair trials in Bahrain and has described Bahrain’s courts as playing “a key role in maintaining the country’s highly repressive political order.”
On March 14, 2016, a United States State Department spokesperson called on the Bahraini authorities to, “follow due process in all cases and to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings,” despite the fact that al-Khawaja had already been convicted of all the offenses for which she has now been imprisoned. On March 16, a State Department spokesperson repeated the call for “due process.” On March 15, a spokesperson for the Danish government said they were “concerned” by al-Khawaja’s arrest and called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained in Bahrain, including her father Abdulhadi.
Zainab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja are Danish citizens, which should make their unjust imprisonment of particular concern to Denmark and other EU governments, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which reviews compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has concluded, in relation to article 19 of the covenant, on freedom of expression that:
The refusal of the court to consider potentially exculpatory evidence violates the right to fair trial, guaranteed under article 14 of the covenant, which Bahrain has ratified.
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.
“The US has claimed this is an issue of due process, but instead it is about unfair convictions that mean that three generations of the al-Khawaja family are now in jail in Bahrain,” Stork said. “And if the EU can’t even stand up for EU citizens imprisoned for their peaceful dissent and rights work, then what does that say about its much vaunted human rights commitments?”