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HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS FACING LENGTHY JAIL TIME AMID CRACKDOWN ON FREE EXPRESSION

In the Bahraini government's ongoing crackdown on free expression, blogs and social networking websites have been censored, union leaders have been slapped with defamation suits and human rights activists are facing up to 10 years or even life in prison, report the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19.

Last week, Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, former president of BCHR who now works for Front Line, was in court on charges of "instigating hatred and disrespect", stemming from a speech he made in January that was critical of the government. Human Rights Watch, which monitored the trial with Front Line, called on Bahrain to drop the charges and lift the travel ban on Al-Khawaja.

"Speaking out harshly against a country's rulers should not be a crime," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "A government that claims to be promoting democracy and human rights, as Bahrain does, shouldn't be putting people in jail for what they say and write."

In his speech, Al-Khawaja called the government an "oppressive regime," that "plundered public lands, degraded the people, and used mercenaries against them." He called for the public to demand the removal of the "ruling gang" through "peaceful means."

Al-Khawaja thanked the trial monitor, Andrea Rocca of Front Line, who reported back details of the proceedings to Human Rights Watch and the IFEX Clearing House. "It seems that the presence of Andrea as a representative of important international NGOs had a great impact in regard to the restrictions and the proceedings", he said. Rocca noted, "In previous occasions, there was a very significant presence of riot police both outside and inside the court building and access was restricted. However, this morning, the presence of riot police was minimal, although many policemen in plainclothes were present. Access to the courtroom was not restricted," and a representative of BCHR and Al-Khawaja's family were able to enter freely.

ARTICLE 19 reports that another trial is ongoing against human rights activists Abduljalil Alsingace, Hasan Mushaima and Mohamed Habib Al-Muqdad "in relation to their publishing activities and speeches about the political situation in Bahrain." They were arrested on 26 January, and Alsingace was freed on bail, while the other two remain in jail. They return to court on 24 March, facing 18 charges, the most severe being related to Article 6 of the Terrorism Code of 2006 and carrying a penalty of life imprisonment. On 6 February, 20 members of IFEX, led by BCHR, protested the arrests of the above three men.

In spite of a constitution that protects the right of free expression, recent weeks have seen a spate of censorship tactics aimed at journalists, bloggers and activists.

BCHR reported this week that the Minister of Information, Mai Al-Khalifa, is expanding an Internet censorship campaign to social networking sites such as Facebook. BCHR has discovered the government has taken down Facebook postings that link to critical news reports or press releases from rights watch groups. Already, hundreds of websites have been blocked by the government on the grounds they "incite violence," according to BCHR.

BCHR also condemns the defamation case against two members of the Bahrain Nursing Association, who are accused of smearing officials at the Salmaneyya Medical Complex, the main public hospital in Bahrain. The High Criminal Court will rule on their case on 24 March.

Meanwhile, the legal cases continue against two other newspaper journalists, Lamees Dhaif of "Al Waqt" and Maryam al-Sherooqi of "Al Wasat," HRW reports. Dhaif faces three years for penning a series that used case studies to demonstrate the Bahraini court system's failures in family law and al-Sherooqi has been charged with "insulting and degrading the Civil Service Bureau" for exposing discriminatory hiring practices at the Bureau.

Visit these links:
- HRW's coverage of the Al-Khawaja case: http://tinyurl.com/d5jdn9
- BCHR website: http://www.bahrainrights.org/en
IFEX joint action on three detainees: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/100645/
- IFEX's Bahrain page: http://tinyurl.com/ytqq7w
(Photo of Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, courtesy of BYSHR)

(18 March 2009)

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