Bahraini military court imposes harsh sentences on dissenters

McClatchy NewspapersJune 22, 2011 

BAGHDAD — Bahrain's military tribunal on Wednesday sentenced eight Shiite Muslim political figures to life imprisonment, and 13 others, including a prominent Sunni Muslim politician, to between five and 15 years in jail.

The harsh sentences, on charges of plotting to overthrow the regime and exchanging intelligence information with a terrorist organization, sparked protests in villages of the Shiite-majority island in the Persian Gulf, which a Sunni dynasty has ruled for more than 200 years.

Those sentenced to life included Hassan Mushaima, who's advocated replacing the monarchy with representative government, Abdulhadi al Khawajah, a prominent human rights champion, and Abdulwahab Hussain, spokesman for the al Wafa Islamic movement.

Ebrahim Sharif, a 53-year-old Sunni politician and former candidate for parliament, was sentenced to five years in jail. He was the secretary-general of the moderate secular grouping Waad, or National Democratic Action Society.

Britain’s Foreign Office decried the outcome.

“It is deeply worrying that civilians are being tried before tribunals chaired by a military judge, with reports of abuse in detention, lack of access to legal counsel and coerced confessions,” Minister Alistair Burt said.

The U.S. State Department was more cautious, saying it was “concerned about the severity of the sentences handed down” and about the use of military courts to try civilians.

Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain’s most outspoken human rights advocate, told McClatchy that all 21 people “were targeted for their opinions and their political views, for opposing government policy.” He said all “were tortured, many subject to electric shock, many sexually harassed and all were deprived of the normal access to lawyers and families.”

Rajab said that when the verdicts were pronounced, Khawajah stood up and told the court they were being prosecuted for their opinions but that they were going to continue to speak out. At that point, police barged in and dragged the defendants from court, Rajab said, quoting witnesses.

Among the 10 men sentenced to 15 years was Mohammed Hassan Jawad, an independent human rights activist who'd left his car at the Pearl Roundabout, the epicenter of Bahrain's protests in February and March, and visited the police to ask where they'd taken it. He later was charged with conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy.

Bahrain’s official news agency said the 21 — who included seven people who were convicted without being present at their own trials — had been charged with “setting up an illegal group aiming to topple the ruling system and bring life in the kingdom to a standstill” and “exchanging intelligence information with a foreign country and supplying it with information about the kingdom in order to carry out hostile actions against it.”

Bahrain’s government has claimed that the dissenters had close links with Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, but U.S. officials said they had yet to see any proof of the allegations.

In the context of at least a dozen other trials now under way, the sentencing of the political dissenters and human rights champions seems unlikely to end the protests on Bahrain, a U.S. ally that's home port to the Navy's 5th Fleet. Bahrain had a brief flirtation with the Arab Spring political reform movement from mid-February until mid-March, when Saudi and United Arab Emirates security forces arrived at the invitation of King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa to help suppress the revolt.

At least 31 people were killed in the violence on the island, and more confrontations seem likely after the sentencing, putting an enormous question mark over a national dialogue between government and opposition that's due to begin July 1.

“These sentences today are another indication that the ruling family of Bahrain are completely non-serious about this dialogue,” said Joe Stork, who follows Bahrain closely for Human Rights Watch, the independent U.S. human rights watchdog group. “There are people (in this group) who represent a portion of the political spectrum. Their views should be represented.”

Rajab, a one-man human rights watchdog in Bahrain, concurred.

“A big part of the people who should be at the table have been sentenced to many years,” he said. “With whom will you have a dialogue?”

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