His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa
King of Bahrain
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 48 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.
- Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International
- Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (Alliance of Independent Journalists)
- Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
- ARTICLE 19
- 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
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
- Ethiopian Freepress Journalists’ Association
- Freedom Forum
- Freedom House
- Globe International
- Index on Censorship
- Initiative for Freedom of Expression
- Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela
- International Press Institute
- Maharat Foundation (Skills Foundation)
- Media Foundation for West Africa
- Media Institute of Southern Africa
- Media Rights Agenda
- Pakistan Press Foundation
- Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms
- PEN American Center
- PEN Canada
- Reporters Without Borders
- World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)
- Bahrain Rehabilitation & Anti Violence Organization (BRAVO)
- Front Line Defenders
- Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
- International Media Support (IMS)
- Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Angola
- MISA Botswana
- MISA Lesotho
- MISA Malawi
- MISA Mozambique
- MISA Namibia
- MISA South Africa
- MISA Swaziland
- MISA Tanzania
- MISA Zambia
- MISA Zimbabwe
- Physicians for Human Rights
- Tunisian Centre for Freedom of the Press (CTPJ)
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