(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities have charged a prominent political activist with “inciting hatred of the political system” after he criticized Bahrain’s government and the November 8 to 11, 2016, visit to Bahrain by Britain’s Prince Charles. The charge against Ebrahim Sharif, former leader of the National Democratic Action Society, carries a prison term of up to three years and is a clear violation of his right to free expression.
On November 11, an Associated Press article reported that the Prince of Wales had made a state visit to Bahrain, part of a seven-day tour of the Gulf undertaken at the request of the British government. The article quotes Sharif expressing concerns that the visit could “whitewash” Bahrain’s human rights situation and the government’s “absolute power.” The Bahrain News Agency said in a November 13 statement that Sharif, had “defamed Bahrain’s constitutional system,” even though Bahrain’s 2002 constitution states that “everyone has the right to express his opinion and publish it by word of mouth.”
“The pomp and ceremony of a royal visit shouldn’t be followed by the arrest of peaceful critics of the government,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Given that the British government requested this trip, it’s incumbent on them to call publicly for Sharif’s release.”
Sharif, whom authorities released pending trial, told Human Rights Watch that officers from the Cyber Crime Directorate called him in for questioning on the morning of November 13. He said they questioned him about his comments in the Associated Press article, after which a public prosecutor charged him with violating article 165 of Bahrain’s penal code, which states that “a prison sentence shall be passed against any person who expressly incites others to develop hatred or hostility toward the system of government.” Sharif denied that his comments incited hatred of the government system.
Sharif told Human Rights Watch that Bahrain airport officials had prevented him from leaving the country on November 5, stating that he was under a travel ban. On October 24, officials at the causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia had informed his wife, Farida Ghulam, that she was under a travel ban.
In 2011, Sharif was one of 21 opposition activists prosecuted for calling for democratic reforms and a republican form of government. They were found guilty of attempting to change the constitution and monarchical system “by force,” and Sharif spent four years and three months in prison. He was released in June 2015, but spent another 13 months in jail after his arrest in July 2015 on charges that he “incited hatred toward the system of government” in a speech in which he repudiated violence and supported peaceful protest.
In a statement Sharif provided to Human Rights Watch on November 15, 2016, he described the government’s actions as “fear tactics … commonly used by undemocratic governments to prevent human rights defenders and political activists from defending thousands of voiceless people tortured, imprisoned, forced into exile or banned from travel.”
On November 14, a United States State Department spokesperson called on the government of Bahrain to drop the latest charges against Sharif. An article on The Guardian website on November 15 quoted a statement from the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office in which they said they would raise their concerns over the case “at a senior level with the Bahraini government.”
The article also includes the following statement from a spokesperson for Prince Charles: “Their royal highnesses are aware of the issues that have been raised by human rights organisations in the lead up to, and during the tour, and the actions being taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concerns at a senior level with the Bahraini government.”
“Ebrahim Sharif is facing jail for criticizing a royal visit the British government asked for, yet London still can’t bring itself to call for the charges to be dropped,” Stork said.