HRW urges Bahrain to release detained activists

Published January 19th, 2015 - 11:07 GMT

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Sunday urged Bahrain's Western allies to press the kingdom to release detained activists, including the head of Bahrain main opposition group whose arrest has sparked protests and condemnation.

Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the al-Wefaq opposition movement, has remained in custody since authorities arrested him on December 28 on charges including seeking regime change.

"When it comes to punishing peaceful critics of the government or ruling family, Bahrain is a serial offender," said HRW's Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa.

Salman's arrest "seems calculated to send a message to Bahrainis and the world that political reconciliation and respect for fundamental rights is completely off the table," Stork said.

HRW said that authorities have so far "failed" to release evidence against Salman, urging his immediate release and calling for charges against him to be dropped.

Prosecutors allege that Salman confessed to contacting foreign regimes and political groups abroad, some of whom had "expressed readiness" to interfere in Bahrain's affairs.

The soft-spoken Salman, 49, is considered a moderate who has pushed for a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, unlike other opposition groups who have demanded the toppling the al-Khalifa dynasty.

In December, countries worldwide denounced Salman’s arrest and over 37 international human rights organizations demanded in a statement Salman’s immediate and unconditional release.

"Bahrain's allies in London, Paris, and elsewhere have largely stayed silent as Bahrain has filled its jails with the people who hold the key to the political solution the UK and US claim to support," Stork said.

Political activists have been prosecuted by Bahraini authorities for attempting to voice out and expose gross human rights violations by al-Khalifa ruling family, which has been in power for over 200 years.

With Saudi Arabia's help, Bahrain crushed peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that began on February 14, 2011.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors sent troops into Bahrain in March 2011, reinforcing a crackdown that led to accusations of serious human rights violations.

At least 93 people are estimated to have been killed and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the uprising erupted.

In early December, a Bahrain court sentenced Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of prominent rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, to three years in prison for “insulting the king” by tearing up a photograph of him.

A couple of days earlier, Zainab’s sister Maryam, who is also a prominent rights activist, was sentenced in absentia to one year in jail for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

Bryan Dooley, head of the Human Rights Defenders Program at the US-based Human Rights First, described Maryam’s sentence as a “powerful warning to human rights activists who criticize the regime.”

Nabeel Rajab, director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), went on trial late October over remarks published on his Twitter account that were critical of state institutions.

BCHR blamed the arrest of Salman on the UK, which recently announced it will open a new military base in Bahrain, in an act that Rajab had described as a “reward” for silence on rights abuses in the kingdom.

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