On 15 September 2016, the Bahraini authorities summoned opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, General Secretary of the largest opposition Society Al-Wefaq (now dissolved), from Jau prison for interrogation over an oral intervention that was delivered on his behalf at the 33rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) condemns the ongoing practice of the Bahraini government in criminalizing freedom of speech.
Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested on 28 December 2014 on grounds of allegedly “publicly inciting hatred, inciting civil disobedience of the law, and insulting public institutions,” just two days after he delivered a speech calling for reforms in the country’s political system. He was initially sentenced on 16 June 2015 to a four-year prison term by the Criminal Court, following a trial where his legal rights were violated. His sentence was increased to nine years on 30 May 2016 by the Court of Appeal, which convicted him on an additional charge of allegedly “attempting to overthrow the regime,” the same charge for which he was previously acquitted.
In an oral intervention delivered on behalf of Sheikh Ali Salman by Bahraini activist Baqer Darwish at UNHRC 33, a call was made to the international community to support Bahraini citizens in their fights for equality and social-justice, in which he voiced that "Bahrain is currently witnessing a dangerous escalation of sectarian persecution against Shiite citizens, especially after the nationality of Shiite leader Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim was revoked. His prosecution was vexatious, representing the trial of the primary and pure constituent of the Bahraini people." Further concerns were voiced over the non-fruitful calls to hold a dialogue with the opposition in an effort to end the violations in Bahrain. The statement urged members of the UNHRC to “demand the release of all political prisoners, end impunity, end sectarian persecution against Shiite citizens, allow the establishment of a permanent high commissioner office with full power, [urge Bahrain to] join the International Criminal Court Treaty of Rome, and allow international rapporteurs and organizations to regularly visit Bahrain.”
Following this address at the UNHRC, the Bahraini authorities referred Sheikh Ali Salman - while still imprisoned - to the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) for interrogation on 15 September 2016. His lawyer stated that Sheikh Ali Salman was interrogated in relation to charges under article 134 of the Bahraini Penal Code, which provides a punishment of imprisonment for anyone who “deliberately releases abroad false or malicious news, statements or rumors about domestic conditions in the State, so as to undermine financial confidence in the State or adversely affect its prestige or position...” On 16 September 2016, Sheikh Ali Salman was summoned again for questioning at the public prosecution, however no official charges were pressed against him.
By considering a speech delivered at the UNHRC a crime that should be investigated, the Bahraini authorities are violating the freedom of expression granted under the article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The same practice was enforced a few days ago when detained leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was interrogated on 5 September 2016 and charged over an op-ed that was published in the “New York Times” under his name with allegedly “intentionally broadcasting false news and malicious rumours abroad impairing the prestige of the state.” The charge could lead to an additional one-year prison sentence.
Sayed Yousif Al-lMuhafdha, BCHR’s Vice President said, “Such acts of harassment and intimidation against detained activists follows the Bahraini government’s direction to completely silence dissident voices and stop others from advocating the cases of imprisoned individuals; the punishment for such activism will be directed towards those already in the hands of the Bahraini criminal justice system.”
BCHR calls on the government of Bahrain to immediately cease all forms of harassment and intimidation directed against activists and human rights defenders and immediately release all activists who are merely detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression.