The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) expresses its deep concern over the Bahraini authorities continuing prosecution of free expression and opinion. BCHR is concerned about the legalization of criminalizing the right to exercise free expression under charges of “inciting hatred against the regime” and “insulting the King,” among others.
Bahraini authorities have increased the crackdown on individuals exercising free expression by convicting and sentencing them to years in prison over charges that do not conform with international human rights covenants. These charges have been used against, among others, human rights defenders, social media activists, and religious figures and clerics. In the past three weeks alone, the authorities have sentenced at least four individuals to more than 12 years in prison and more than BHD12,000 in fines for merely expressing their opinions. BCHR presents herein a few of the most recent cases as a sample of this serious human rights violation.
In March 2016, the third low criminal court sentenced the owner of the Twitter handle “Takrooz”, Hussain Mahdi, to five years in prison and a BHD10,000 fine over charges of “insulting the King.” Mahdi was arrested in 2015 and subjected to ill-treatment. Similarly, Ebrahim Karimi, who had his citizenship revoked through an administrative decision in 2012, was arrested in 2015 and subjected to ill-treatment for allegedly running the Twitter handle “FreejKarimi”. On 1 April, 2016, the fifth criminal court sentenced him to two years in prison and BHD2,100 for “insulting a brotherly country and inciting hatred against the regime.”
On 14 March 2016, Bahraini forces arrested human rights defender Zainab al-Khawaja at home and took her with her 15-month-old son to begin serving sentences in several cases, including two cases of “insulting the King” for tearing up his picture during peaceful protests.
Moreover, numerous Shia religious figures and clerics have been accused and sentenced because of speeches they’ve delivered during Friday prayer sermons as part of their duty as clerics.
Sayed Kamel al-Hashemi, a well-known religious figure and social advocate with no political involvement, was sentenced to a total of three years’ in prison: one year in prison for “inciting to hatred against a group of people” and two years in prison for “insulting the King.” Al-Hashemi was convicted based on speeches he delivered in Friday prayer sermons at a mosque in Barbar village and a social and religious center in Bani Jamra in October 2012. He was arrested under these charges for 10 days that same month. His trial began in 2013, he was sentenced in March 2014 and the sentence was upheld by the court of appeal in March 2016. Currently, al-Hashemi is at risk of being arrested.
In December 2015, Sheikh Abdulzahra al-Mubasher was sentenced to two years in prison for “inciting hatred against the regime and insulting a historical figure that is respected by other groups” in relation to a speech he gave during the religious sessions of Muharram. He was arrested following that speech in October 2015. On 29 March 2016, a court of appeal upheld his sentence of two years in prison. Sheikh al-Mubasher is currently serving his imprisonment sentence.
Several Shia clerics have been summoned and interrogated during the months of March and April 2016 due to speeches they delivered during religious sermons. Bahraini authorities summoned Sayed Majeed al-Mishal for interrogation. He was charged with inciting hatred against the regime for referencing the United Nations’ joint communication report during a speech at Friday prayers.
It should be noted that since 2011 the government of Bahrain has harshened penalties and punishments in the law on charges related to free expression. In 2014, a bill was approved which increased imprisonment sentences and fines for whoever “offends the emir of the country [the King], the national flag or emblem.” The amendments introduced sentences of up to seven years’ imprisonment and up to BHD10,000 fines for any person committing these “crimes” according to the government of Bahrain. This amendment resulted in a wide space in criminalizing any form of expressing critical opinion about the King.
The BCHR believes that the Bahraini authorities violate one of the fundamental human rights by criminalizing individuals for exercising free speech using vague, broad, and undefined charges of allegedly “insulting the King” and “inciting hatred against the regime.” These charges are believed to have been introduced to silence dissidents and activists and prevent Bahrainis from demanding rights and political reform.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights calls on the government of Bahrain to:
- Respect human rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression without restrictions, conditions or arbitrary legal procedures;
- Stop the targeting of peaceful human rights defenders and dissidents and allow them to freely exercise their right to freedom of speech;
- Release all those detainees arrested for peacefully expressing or publishing their views; and
- Stop imposing arbitrary restrictions on freedom of speech and repeal all laws that hinder the right to free expression.