(WiPC/IFEX) - The following is a letter signed by 50 IFEX members and partners to the King of Bahrain:
His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa
King of Bahrain
Office of His Majesty the King
Kingdom of Bahrain.
Fax: +973 176 64 587
17 April 2012
In the face of growing international concern about human rights violations in Bahrain as you prepare to welcome people to the Formula One on 22 April, we the undersigned 50 members and partners of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) call on you to free detained activists, bloggers and human rights defenders and drop all charges that violate the right to peaceful expression.
In particular, we call on you to immediately release human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, founder of IFEX member the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, whose life is at risk from a hunger strike undertaken since 8 February 2012. He has been transferred to a hospital and could die if he is not released and allowed to seek medical treatment in Denmark, where he is a dual citizen. In an open letter, Al-Khawaja pledged to stay on hunger strike to protest his life sentence until "freedom or death". A renowned human rights activist, Al-Khawaja is also the co-founder of the Gulf Center for Human Rights and a former Middle East and North Africa director of Front Line Defenders.
After being violently arrested in April 2011, Al-Khawaja was treated for fractures to his face, among other abuses alleged to have been committed while he was tortured in prison. Two journalists are reported to have died of torture in prison last year, according to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), an independent inquiry which you mandated. We call on the Bahraini authorities to independently investigate the torture claims, as recommended by BICI.
Al-Khawaja, blogger and activist Abduljalil Al-Singace and blogger Ali Abdulemam of BahrainOnline are among 21 men accused of being leaders of anti-government protests that began in February 2011 and charged with attempting to overthrow the monarchy, despite there being no evidence to support this claim nor the claim that they advocated violence. Fourteen of them are in detention, while seven others were sentenced in absentia by a military court in a grossly unfair trial in June 2011. The whereabouts of Abdulemam, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison, are unknown. He has not been seen for over a year.
Al-Khawaja and Al-Singace were both sentenced to life in prison in June 2011 and were among those found to have been tortured in custody to extract confessions, in contravention of international law.
On 2 April, Bahrain's Court of Cassation refused to release the 14 detained activists and human rights defenders. The court said it would announce a verdict in their case on 23 April.
The BICI called for all prisoners tried in military courts to be transferred to civilian courts and for investigations into allegations of torture to be carried out. Despite the recommendations of the BICI, human rights defenders, political activists and bloggers – as well as doctors, medics, teachers and even athletes - remain in jail, merely for exercising their right to peaceful expression, assembly and association.
We urge the Bahraini authorities to follow through with the BICI recommendations and to abide by their obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and ensure the unconditional release of and the dismissal of all charges against Al-Khawaja, Al-Singace and of all those currently detained in Bahrain solely for the peaceful expression of their opinions.
Hundreds of people have been charged for participating in protests, most of them peacefully. Arrests and crackdowns on demonstrations are ongoing, including of those calling for the release of Al-Khawaja and other political prisoners, as well as those opposed to the holding of the Formula One in Bahrain, under the current circumstances. Al-Khawaja's daughter, twitter activist Zaynab Al-Khawaja, was twice arrested for protesting her father's ongoing detention and for trying to visit him in a military hospital earlier in April.
You cannot continue to silence dissent with teargas and detention without alienating the international community further and risking Bahrain's reputation. Releasing these detainees would send a strong message that Bahrain will uphold its international obligations and follow through with its promises for reform.
Failing their release, we urge the Bahraini authorities to allow immediate access to necessary medical treatment, regular family visits and lawyers for all detainees, and for international observers to be allowed to attend the Court of Cassation's ruling scheduled for 23 April.
Some of the groups below are among signatories to a letter of protest published in the UK Guardian on 9 April. Many are also among those who previously sent you a joint appeal to free Al-Khawaja, dated 5 March 2012. Al-Khawaja simply cannot wait until 23 April to find out if justice will be served.
Aliansi Jurnalis Independen/Alliance of Independent Journalists
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Center for Media Studies & Peace Building
Centre for Independent Journalism - Malaysia
Committee to Protect Journalists
Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
Ethiopian Freepress Journalists' Association
Fundamedios - Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study
Globe International Center
Index on Censorship
Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey
Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela
International Press Institute
Media Foundation for West Africa
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Media Rights Agenda
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
PEN American Center
Reporters Without Borders
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC
Bahrain Rehabilitation & Anti Violence Organization (BRAVO)
Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR)
Front Line Defenders
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
International Media Support (IMS)
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Angola
MISA South Africa
Physicians for Human Rights
Tunisian Centre for Freedom of the Press (CTPJ)