Bahrain court upholds jail for 13 activists

 08 Jan 2013 - 4:01

Bahraini Shia protesters clash with security forces following a demonstration in solidarity with jailed human rights activists in the village of Malikiyah, south of of Manama, yesterday.  Right: Kuwaiti riot police raise their batons at an opposition protester during a demonstration demanding that the new parliament be dissolved and controversial legislation be scrapped, in Kuwait City, yesterday.

MANAMA/kuwait: Bahrain’s highest appeals court yesterday upheld prison terms for 13 prominent activists on charges of plotting to overthrow the monarchy, lawyers said, in a verdict that sparked protests.

Hours after the Court of Cassation’s ruling, hundreds gathered in the Shia village of Malkiya in support of the prisoners, in response to calls for demonstrations by activists on social networking websites.

The rulings were also condemned by the main Shia opposition bloc Al Wefaq, and human rights watchdog Amnesty International while France said it “regretted” the verdicts.

“This unjust decision will confirm the view of many that the judiciary is more concerned about toeing the government’s line than upholding the rule of law and the rights of all Bahrainis,” said Amnesty’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“In order to maintain any credibility at all the Bahraini authorities must release these 13 people who have been imprisoned simply for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” she added in a statement.

Seven of the activists have been jailed for life, including Abdulhadi Khawaja, who last year embarked on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, finally ending his fast in June after 110 days.

Two others sentenced to life are Hassan Mashaima, head of the Shiite opposition Haq movement and Abduljalil al-Singace, a member of the same group.

Protesters in Malkiya hoisted a large banner bearing the pictures of the 13 defendants and chanted: “We demand the release of all prisoners,” witnesses said.

“The people want to overthrow the regime,” they shouted.

Al Wefaq issued a statement saying it considers “the verdict political and reflects the absolute absence of an independent judiciary.”

“The judiciary is being controlled and used by the regime in the political conflict to punish dissidents, and by this the revolution must continue,” it said.

The bloc’s head, Sheikh Ali Salman tweeted: “The judgments confirm the need for radical reform” in the government that sentences “dissenting opinion to life imprisonment.”

“The revolution continues and the sentences of leaders energise it,” wrote Salman on his official account on Twitter.

Witnesses said Bahraini police were heavily deployed around the court during the hearing.

The 13 activists took part in 2011 anti-government protests and were convicted by a military tribunal on charges that included “setting up terror groups to topple the regime”. The defendants were retried in a civil court. Seven other activists sentenced in absentia to various jail terms on the same charges remain at large.

In September, a lower appeals court upheld life sentences for seven of the activists, all Shiites, including Khawaja, Mashaima and Singace, and jail terms ranging from five to 15 years for the others. Since February 2011, Bahrain has been shaken by opposition protests that the authorities say are being fuelled by Shiite Iran across the Gulf.

A statement from French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said: “We had hoped for a lenient verdict that might create a climate of reconciliation between all parties.”

Meanwhile, a Kuwaiti court sentenced a man to two years in prison yesterday for insulting the country’s ruler on Twitter, his lawyer said, the second to be jailed for the offence in as many days. 

The US-allied Gulf Arab state has clamped down in recent months on political activists who have been using social media websites to criticise the government and the ruling family.

Kuwait has seen a series of protests, including one on Sunday night, organised by the opposition since the ruling Emir H H Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, used emergency powers in October to change the voting system. 

The court sentenced Ayyad Al Harbi, who has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, to the prison term two months after his arrest and release on bail.

Harbi used his Twitter account to criticise the Kuwait government and the emir. He tweeted on Sunday: “Tomorrow morning is my trial’s verdict on charges of slander against the emir, spreading of false news.”

His lawyer, Mohammed Al Humidi, said Harbi would appeal against the verdict. “We’ve been taken by surprise because Kuwait has always been known internationally and in the Arab world as a democracy-loving country,” Humidi said by telephone. “People are used to democracy, but suddenly we see the constitution being undermined.”

On Sunday, Rashid Saleh Al Anzi was given two years in prison over a tweet that “stabbed the rights and powers of the emir”, according to the online newspaper Alaan. Anzi, who has 5,700 Twitter followers, was expected to appeal. 

Kuwait, a US ally and major oil producer, has been taking a firmer line on politically sensitive comments aired on the Internet. 

In June 2012, a man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of endangering state security by insulting the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) and the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on social media. 

Two months later, authorities detained Sheikh Meshaal Al Malik Al Sabah, a member of the ruling family, over remarks on Twitter in which he accused authorities of corruption and called for political reform, a rights activist said. 

Public demonstrations about local issues are common in a state that allows the most dissent in the Gulf, and Kuwait has avoided Arab Spring-style mass unrest that has ousted four veteran Arab dictators in the past two years. 

But tensions have risen between Kuwait’s hand-picked government, in which ruling family members hold the top posts, and the elected parliament and opposition groups.   AFP/reuters