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HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS GIVEN HARSH JAIL SENTENCES

Eleven human rights activists and demonstrators who were "unjustly" detained following protests in December have been given jail sentences of one to seven years, reports the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).

Amid tight security, a Bahraini criminal court on 12 July sentenced 11 of 15 activists who were standing trial on charges ranging from illegal assembly to use of force against security officials. Hassan Abdulnabi, an active member of an organisation called the Unemployment Committee, was given the longest sentence at seven years, and was fined 9980 Bahraini dinars (US$26,500).

The arrests were triggered by demonstrations on 17 December in Sanabis, near the capital Manama, that were organised to pay tribute to victims of torture. Riot police and special security forces violently dispersed the protests. One pro-democracy activist was killed, allegedly at the hands of the authorities. Protests were held following his funeral that again resulted in violent clashes with the armed special forces.

Using the protests as a pretext, the Bahraini security forces detained up to 70 people for their role in the protests, including leaders of popular human rights and civil society groups.

The group of 15 was the largest to stand trial to date out of the 70 detainees. BCHR points out that the five people who received the harshest sentences of five years or more are known activists - leaders of the Unemployed Committee, the Committee to Combat High Prices, and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, for instance - and had been targeted by the government because of their work.

Six others were sentenced to one year each in prison, while four defendants were found not guilty.

"We believe the charges against the activists, for violent actions which they did not commit, are a pretext to silence them as a reprisal for their outspoken and peaceful human rights work," 21 IFEX members had said in an appeal to the Bahraini authorities in February.

According to BCHR, the court paid no attention to the appeals, or to the medical team who had examined the detainees and concluded that there were signs they were tortured.

BCHR is calling for the immediate release of all the detainees, an independent committee to look into the torture allegations, and a full review of the public security laws that have been used recently to target human rights leaders.

The sentences come amid rising sectarian tension in Bahrain. In an effort to end the recent conflict, the authorities have announced a new watchdog committee to keep tabs on preachers, media outlets and websites promoting sectarianism.

BCHR has accused the new committee of being a front to suppress freedoms. The authorities closed down three prominent Bahraini websites that run political forums. Some of the people involved with the websites were summoned by state security and charged with instigating hatred.

Visit these links:
- BCHR: http://www.bahrainrights.org/en
- Joint action: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/91069/
- "Government stokes sectarian tensions to justify crackdown on press" in "IFEX Communiqué" (9 July): http://tinyurl.com/5jyntt
- IFEX Bahrain page: http://tinyurl.com/ytqq7w
- "Court sentences protesters to jail", in UAE's "The National": http://tinyurl.com/5wywnd
(23 July 2008)

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