(Beirut) Bahrain’s First High Court of Appeal more than doubled the prison sentence of the country’s most prominent opposition leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, from four years to 9 years, on May 30, 2016. Sheikh Ali Salman is secretary general of Al Wifaq, by far the country’s largest legally recognized opposition political society.
The appeal court overturned a trial court’s decision to acquit him of advocating the overthrow of the government by force. It increased the sentence despite strong evidence his initial trial was unfair and the fact that two of the charges on which he had been convicted violated his right to freedom of expression.
“Sheikh Salman is the latest casualty of Bahrain’s war on dissent, but he won’t be the last unless Bahrain’s allies in London and Washington loudly protest this travesty of justice,” said Joe Stork deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This level of repression will not create stability for Bahrain, but quite the opposite.”
In the speeches that formed the basis of Salman’s convictions, which were available in full through video evidence, he explicitly repudiated the use of force and stressed his commitment to nonviolence. The appeal court appeared to rely on an Interior Ministry report that may have misrepresented the content of these speeches instead of the video evidence. It also ignored the trial court’s rejection of defense efforts to enter the video recordings into evidence. The authorities should quash Salman’s convictions on charges that violate his right to freedom of expression, to a fair trial, or other basic rights.
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. Two of his three two-year sentences were to run concurrently. One was the maximum sentence for insulting the Interior Ministry, under article 216 of the penal code. The second was for “public incitement to disobedience of the law” under article 173 for calling for Bahrainis to exercise their right to free assembly, in opposition to a law that arbitrarily restricts that right. Both of these charges inherently violate Salman’s right to freedom of expression. The court also convicted Salman of “inciting hatred” of naturalized Bahrainis, in violation of article 172.
Regarding the fourth charge of advocating the overthrow of the government by force, the court had concluded that the prosecution provided “no certain proof of the advocacy of the use of force, threat, or unlawful means to change the political system.”
A Bahrain News Agency statement on May 30 said that Sheikh Salman had been found guilty of “promoting forceful regime change and threatening to use unlawful means.” Article 160 of the penal code provides for sentences of up to 10 years for advocating the overthrow of the government’s political system by force. The report said that Salman “justified acts of violence and sabotage” and “repeatedly threatened to use military force, and publicly expressed that the military option was still open.”
Sheikh Salman’s lawyer, Jalila al-Sayed, told Human Rights Watch that the appeal court’s decision relied largely on the characterization of Salman’s speeches by Khalid al-Sa’idi, an Interior Ministry officer, in the Directorate of Crime Detention report that formed the basis of the prosecution’s case against Salman. Al-Sa’idi’s descriptions may have misrepresented the content of Salman’s speeches.
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 entire speech, which can be viewed on the internet, shows that Salman actually said “I am not talking about military force.”
In a December 4, 2014 speech that also figured in the prosecution’s case and is also available in full on the internet, Salman stated that Al Wifaq’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Isa Qassim, had clarified the importance of “peaceful action, the repudiation of violence, and a turn away from the military option, which was and remains on the table.” Salman 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, 2014 Salman, addressing an Al Wifaq general conference, said “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.”
A State Department spokesperson said the US was “deeply concerned” by the decision and urged the Bahraini authorities to release Sheikh Salman. The EU said in a statement on May 31 that the verdict “verdict risks undermining chances of lasting and inclusive national reconciliation in Bahrain.” The UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, was in Bahrain on the day of the appeal court’s decision. Hammond said on social media that he had “raised” the issue with Bahraini authorities and that he would “follow [the] case closely.” In a separate comment that day Hammond said that he welcomed Bahrain’s “commitment to continuing reforms.”
“Foreign Secretary Hammond’s ability to speak with a straight face about Bahrain’s commitment to reforms on the same day it jails its main opposition leader for nine years suggests that the UK’s assessment of the rights situation in Bahrain is crafted to please its allies,” Stork said.