1 March 2007
Blogger sued for libel for criticising minister; "Leaflet Detainees" released, given royal pardon
(BCHR/IFEX) - The following is a 26 February 2007 statement from BCHR, an interim member of IFEX:
Bahrain Government Must Stop Using Prosecution as a Means to Harass Activists and Journalists
BCHR cautiously welcomes the release of Leaflet Detainees; calls for repeal of Penal Code of 1976 and Press Law
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights welcomes the release of two Bahraini political activists, known as the "Leaflet Detainees", who were sentenced to prison in January 2007 for distributing political leaflets. However, the BCHR calls for steps to be taken to end the continuous government practice of using detention and prosecution to harass human rights and political activists, and journalists.
Dentist Dr. Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahlawi, 35, and insurance sales executive Hussain Abdul Aziz Al Hebshi, 32, were arrested on 16 November 2006, after they were found to be in possession of Internet-downloaded publications calling for the boycott of the November 2006 national elections, deemed by the government to be "subversive literature". The pair were charged with "promoting the change of the state system through illegal means and without a legitimate reason", and "spreading false news and rumours, which would cause disruption of public security, and damage public interest", on the basis of articles 160, 161 and 168 of the draconian Penal Code of 1976.
Despite pleas for their release from a wide range of local and international human rights organizations, the courts convicted the pair on 30 January, with Dr Al Sahlawi receiving a one-year prison sentence and Mr Al Hebshi receiving one of six months. The pair were released from prison on the morning of 25 February, reportedly based on a royal pardon from HM the King, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
While welcoming the release of the detainees, the BCHR remains deeply concerned that the purpose of their detention and prosecution by the government was to stifle any public criticism of it.
"Although the 'Leaflet Detainees' are now free, the three months they spent in detention, without compensation or apology, was enough to serve its purpose as a veiled threat to other activists and journalists who are critical of the government's actions," BCHR vice president Nabeel Rajab said. "The case of the 'Leaflet Detainees' is just one of many such recent government attempts to silence dissenters in the country."
It should be noted that:
- BCHR president Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, and HAQ Movement (an opposition political society) secretary-general Hassan Mushaime are currently being prosecuted for "crimes related to internal state security", each facing up to 15 years' imprisonment.
- Popular local blogger Mahmood Al Yousif is currently facing a libel case, punishable by imprisonment, for criticizing the minister of municipalities and agriculture on his blog.
- Suad Fathalla is being threatened and harassed for criticizing the Public Prosecution and Sharia courts on a television discussion programme about women's rights in Bahrain.
In recent years, numerous other activists and journalists have been detained and prosecuted for expressing criticism of the government. There have also been a number of cases where prominent activists have been targeted for physical attack by security forces during peaceful demonstrations, or personally attacked by masked men.
"The continued harassment of activists violates government commitments to freedom of expression and press guaranteed by articles 23 and 24 of the Constitution of Bahrain and by international human rights instruments," Rajab said.
He added: "Instead of pursuing activists and journalists, the Public Prosecutor should be prosecuting known torturers like Ian Henderson and Adel Flaifel or the inciters of sectarianism accused in the Bandargate report who currently walk free in Bahrain. Additionally, the Penal Code of 1976 and the Press Law of 2002, under which activists and journalists are repeatedly prosecuted, must be repealed or amended such that they comply with international human rights standards."