In the early hours of 1 July 2014, Dr. Saeed Al-Samahiji was arrested from his home to serve a one-year prison sentence for “insulting the King.” The alleged insult had taken place on 18 September 2013 at the funeral of a young protester who died as a result of excessive use of force by Bahraini authorities.
Following the funeral, Dr. Al-Samahiji was immediately summoned for interrogation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), where he himself went voluntarily the following day, 19 September 2013.
Al-Samahiji was then transferred to the public prosecution for further interrogation until he was released on bail of 200 BHD (USD$ 500). The case was then brought before the court on 11 December 2013.
Despite Dr. Al-Samahiji's denial of the charge and his lawyer's statements that his speech falls under the right of freedom of expression and that Al-Samahiji was merely exercising his right to peaceful expression of opinion about the responsibilities of the King, the court sentenced him to one year in prison. On 3 April 2014, a court of appeal upheld the verdict delivered against against him.
Dr. Al-Samahiji had previously served a one-year sentence after being accused of "inciting and participating in an illegal gathering" during a peaceful demonstration in 2011, which formed another direct violation of the basic human right that upholds free assembly.
Dr. Al-Samahiji was among 20 medics that were convicted and sentenced to imprisonments between five and 15 years by a special military court on 29 September 2011. After appealing to the Court of Appeals on 14 June 2012, Al-Samahiji's sentence was reduced from ten years to one year.
The arrest of Dr. Saeed Al-Samahiji is the latest in Bahraini authorities' crackdown on freedom of expression.
Most cases taken to court have been on vague, trumped-up charges related to actions that fall under the protection of both the universal right to freedom of expression and the Bahraini Constitution, Article 23, including charges such as, “inciting hatred against the state”, “inciting terrorism”, and “insulting an authoritarian entity.” Recently, the authorities have increasingly used the charge of “insulting the King” to silence critics and political opposition.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) has documented over 30 arrests between October 2012 and December 2013 on charges of “insulting the King” due to ripping pictures of members of the Al-Khalifa family, Twitter updates, public speeches, and other forms of peaceful expression of opinion. The King of Bahrain heads the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities, and has the sole power to appoint members of the government, judiciary, and public prosecutors and, therefore, has absolute power to prosecute anyone who criticizes him.
On 18 November 2013, the Shura Council approved parliamentary amendments to Article 23 of the Penal Code to increase the punishment for “insulting the King” which states:
“A prison sentence shall be the penalty for any person who offends the emir of the country [the king], the national flag, or emblem.”
Under the new law, whoever publicly offends or criticizes the King of Bahrain, the nation flag, or emblem will be punished with imprisonment of a minimum of one year but not exceeding seven years in prison in addition to a fine between 1,000 and 10,000 BHD. If the offense occurs in the presence of the King, the sentence may be harsher.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) believe that human rights defender, Dr. Saeed Al-Samahiji, has been targeted with arrest, detention, unfair trial and prison sentences solely due to his legitimate exercise of freedom of speech and peaceful activities in defence of human rights in Bahrain. We further believe that authorities in Bahrain have no intention of tolerating any peaceful human rights activity or any call for reforms in the country.
BCHR and GCHR call on the United States, the United Kingdom, the UN, and all other allies and international institutions to put pressure on the government of Bahrain to immediately:
- Release Dr. Saeed Al-Samahiji and drop any charge against him;
- Release all activists imprisoned on charges of "insulting the King" and for practicing their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, opinion, and peaceful demonstration;
- Drop all charges related to freedom of expression in cases that are currently ongoing in court;
- Withdraw all national and local laws that restrict freedom of opinion and expression and prevent the transmission of information.
- Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Bahrain are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment;