A human rights activist detained for “insulting” Bahrain’s King after she tore up a photograph of the monarch in court yesterday is a prisoner of conscience and must be released, Amnesty International said today.
Zainab Al-Khawaja, who was appealing against two previous convictions for ripping up photos of Bahrain’s head of state, is now being held for seven days while authorities investigate the incident. If convicted, she could face up to seven years in prison.
“The detention of Zainab illustrates the Bahraini authorities’ growing intolerance of any criticism and their harsh methods of dealing with dissent,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director for Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“They must immediately and unconditionally release Zainab and all others who are detained for peacefully expressing their views.”
Zainab Al-Khawaja, who is more than eight months pregnant, was previously handed four-month jail sentences for destroying government property when she ripped photos of King Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa on two occasions in May 2012.
The activist appeared today before Bahrain’s Public Prosecution, which ordered her detention pending an investigation on more serious charges of “insulting the King, the national flag or emblem”.
Laws that prohibit insults or the disrespect of heads of state or other public figures are contrary to international human rights law and standards.
Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Bahraini authorities to repeal articles in its Penal Code that criminalize freedom of expression.
“The Bahraini authorities are resorting to these oppressive laws in order to silence outspoken and critical voices,” said Said Boumedouha.
“Their persistent persecution of human rights activists and other government critics highlights their failure to deliver on promised reforms.”
Zainab Al-Khawaja is the daughter of prominent activist and prisoner of conscience Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who is currently serving a life sentence for his peaceful role in anti-government protests in 2011.
She previously spent almost a year in prison on an array of other charges before being released in February this year.
These included destroying government property, insulting a policewoman, illegal gathering and rioting and inciting hatred against the regime.
After ripping the photo yesterday she reportedly told the court: “I am the daughter of a proud and free man. My mother brought me into this world free, and I will give birth to a free baby boy even if it is inside our prisons. It is my right, and my responsibility as a free person, to protest against oppression and oppressors.”
After she handed in the torn picture to the judge, the court session was suspended and she was taken into detention.
Other activists in Bahrain have faced similar persecution.
Nabeel Rajab will appear before a criminal court on 19 October on charges of publicly insulting official institutions following two tweets he posted last month about members of Bahrain’s security forces who had joined the ”Islamic State” armed group.
Maryam Al-Khawaja, Zainab’s sister, is on trial on a charge of “assaulting police officers” at Bahrain International Airport, though she was released on bail.
Nader Abdulemam is currently detained in Dry Dock Prison after comments he posted on Twitter were interpreted as derogatory towards Khalid bin al-Waleed, a companion of the prophet Muhammad and a renowned Islamic commander. He is charged with “publicly insulting a religious figure of worship”.