Bahrain urged to free remaining prisoners of conscience

Bahrain must immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, Amnesty International said after a court in the capital Manama let the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab out on bail on Monday. The Bahraini authorities have banned Rajab, the President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, from travelling abroad and he is due to return to court in June on charges related to his activism – which Amnesty International says should be dropped.Also on Monday, jailed human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja ended a 110-day hunger strike. Al-Khawaja and 12 other opposition leaders remain behind bars on charges related to their roles in peaceful pro-reform protests in 2011. Amnesty International considers all of them to be prisoners of conscience.“The ongoing detention and trials of these prisoners of conscience shows that behind Bahrain’s thin veneer of reform, little has changed in practice and the human rights crisis is far from over,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme Director. “The Bahraini authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience, drop the charges against those awaiting trial for peaceful protest and lift the travel ban on Nabeel Rajab.”Nabeel RajabOn 28 May, a lower criminal court in Manama ordered Nabeel Rajab’s release on bail of 300 Bahraini dinars (around US$800).He is due to return to court on 17 June for two separate cases in which he has been charged with inciting people to join him on illegal marches, taking part in an “illegal gathering” and “disturbing public order”. His lawyers only learnt about these charges recently.In a third case, Rajab has been charged with “insulting a national institution” on Twitter, for which he is due to appear in court again on 24 June. On his release, Rajab told Amnesty International: “I am targeted for exercising my right to freedom of expression and assembly, as well as for being a human rights defender. This is not new and this is the price one has to pay for defending human rights. “I have full appreciation for all the people who stood up for me. Every letter has made a difference and without the support of activists I would not have been released,” he added.Amnesty International calls on the Bahraini authorities to open an investigation into reports that Rajab was beaten by riot police while participating in a protest in February 2012. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and other prisoners of conscienceAnother leading human rights activist, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, called an end to a 110-day hunger strike in prison on Monday evening. In his own words, the original aim of the hunger strike was to achieve “freedom or death”, but he told his family that the action had been successful in shedding light on Bahrain’s ongoing human rights situation. Al-Khawaja and 12 other opposition activists – many of whom were allegedly subjected to torture including sexual assault in detention – were back in court today to appeal their imprisonment on charges including “setting up terror groups to topple the royal regime and change the constitution”.The 13 men maintain their innocence, and many of them claim their confessions were extracted under torture. They are appealing to have their prison sentences – which range from two years to life imprisonment – overturned. Several have refused to attend future court hearings in their case on the grounds that the sentences were politically motivated. To date, several of the defendants have spoken out in court to describe their torture in detention. The remainder of the defendants are expected to testify at a 5 June hearing. Al-Hur Yousef al-Somaikh, who had been detained along with the 13 prisoners of conscience, was released on 30 April after his two-year sentence was reduced to six months. He is no longer facing trial. The appeal hearing of Bahrain Teachers’ Association members Mahdi ‘Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila Salman, sentenced to 10 and three years in prison by a military court in September 2011, is due to resume before a civilian court on Wednesday. Abu Dheeb – who previously told a court he had been tortured in detention – is currently serving his sentence in Jaw prison, while Salman has been released on bail. Amnesty International continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Abu Dheeb and the other 13 prisoners of conscience, and urges the Bahraini authorities to carry out an independent investigation into allegations that they were tortured in detention. Women activists released on bail Trials also resumed today for Al-Khawaja’s daughter Zainab Al-Khawaja and another woman, Ma’suma Sayyid Sharaf, who have been charged in different court cases for their participation in several peaceful protests in and near Manama since December 2011. Both women were released on bail and are due to appear before a court again on several cases during the month of June on charges including taking part in “illegal gatherings” and allegedly assaulting policewomen.On 24 May, a lower criminal court sentenced Zainab Al-Khawaja to 30 days in prison on related charges, but she had already served longer than that in detention. Both women deny the charges against them and on 20 May they launched a five-day hunger strike in protest at their detention, resulting in Zainab Al-Khawaja being hospitalized three days later. “According to our research into the cases of Zainab Al-Khawaja and Ma’suma Sayyid Sharaf, there is no indication that either of them has used or advocated violence,” said Luther.“We believe they are on trial for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly and are calling for the charges against them to be dropped.”