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Political speech is not a crime: Urgent appeal to stop the trial of Sheikh Ali Salman

NGOs call on Bahraini authorities to drop all charges and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of Bahrain's largest political opposition society, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society.

A Bahraini female protester holds a placard portraying Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Shiite opposition movement Al-Wefaq, on March 24, 2015, during a demonstration against his arrest, in the village of Daih, west of Manama. Salman is behind bars for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime. His arrest on December 28, 2014, shortly after he was re-elected head of Bahrain's main opposition party Al-Wefaq, has sparked near-daily protests in Shiite villages.
A Bahraini female protester holds a placard portraying Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Shiite opposition movement Al-Wefaq, on March 24, 2015, during a demonstration against his arrest, in the village of Daih, west of Manama. Salman is behind bars for allegedly trying to overthrow the regime. His arrest on December 28, 2014, shortly after he was re-elected head of Bahrain's main opposition party Al-Wefaq, has sparked near-daily protests in Shiite villages.

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

We the undersigned call on Bahraini authorities to drop all charges and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of Bahrain's largest political opposition society, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, who has been serving a four-year prison sentence for charges in response to political speeches he delivered in 2014, and who is now facing a potential death sentence in a groundless new trial on politically motivated charges.

Since his incarceration in 2014, several international bodies have spoken out against the imprisonment of Sheikh Ali Salman. On 30 December 2014, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesperson urged Bahrain to immediately release Sheikh Ali Salman as well as all other persons convicted or detained for “merely exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.” In addition, the European Union expressed concern about the sentence issued against Sheikh Ali Salman, and the United States Ambassador to the United Nations called the sentence against Sheikh Ali Salman a blow to freedom of expression.

However, despite the growing concern over the silencing of Sheikh Ali Salman and the subsequent 2017 dissolution of the political opposition society al-Wefaq, Bahraini authorities announced on 27 November 2017 the start of a new trial against him on charges of spying for Qatar.

The latest trial against Sheikh Ali Salman reinforces the closing of democratic space in the country; as the 2018 elections for Bahrain's lower house of parliament approach, the government has forcibly dissolved Wa'ad, the largest secular leftist society, and indefinitely suspended Bahrain's only independent newspaper Al-Wasat, in addition to upholding its arbitrary decision in 2017 to dissolve the political opposition society al-Wefaq.

On 24 April 2018, the High Criminal Court adjourned the new trial against Sheikh Ali Salman until 21 June, when it is expected to issue a verdict in the case. The Public Prosecution Office has called on the High Criminal Court to hand down the “maximum penalty” – which in this case could be a death sentence.

NGOs have decried this use of the judiciary to punish opposition activists for publicly expressing views that oppose the Bahraini government. The trial is in violation of Sheikh Ali Salman's rights to liberty, fair trial, free expression, and free association.

We, the undersigned, call on Bahraini authorities to:
1. Drop all charges and ensure the immediate and unconditional release of Sheikh Ali Salman and the cancellation of the sentence issued against him in the previous case;
2. Stop prosecution of political dissidents and human rights activists for reasons related to freedom of expression;
3. Stop the arbitrary use of domestic legislation, including some articles of the Penal Code and the Law on the Protection of Society from Terrorist Acts, to criminalize the peaceful practice of freedom of opinion and expression;
4. Release all detainees who have been arrested for reasons related to exercising their fundamental rights to expression, organisation and peaceful assembly guaranteed by international laws.

Signed,

Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
Bytes for All (B4A)
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
Center for Media Studies & Peace Building (CEMESP)
Freedom Forum
Independent Journalism Center (IJC)
Index on Censorship
Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey
Maharat Foundation
MARCH
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)
Media Watch
National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)
Norwegian PEN
Pakistan Press Foundation
PEN American Center
PEN Canada
Social Media Exchange (SMEX)
South East Europe Media Organisation
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)

Bahrain Interfaith
Danish Pen
Global Human Rights Geneva
MENA Monitoring Group
No Peace Without Justice
Salam for Democracy and Human Rights
Vivarta Limited

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