Friday, June 24, 2011

Life sentences for Bahrain dissidents

Protesters take to the streets, clashing with police after eight Shia
activists are given life sentences.

June 22, 2011 Al Jazeera

Bahrain's government says it has only tried a small number of those
involved in recent mass protests [Reuters]

Police and protesters have clashed in Bahrain after eight Shia Muslim
activists accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the Gulf Arab state's
Sunni monarchy were sentenced to life in prison.

The court also sentenced on Wednesday other defendants - from among the 21
suspects on trial - to between two and 15 years in jail.

Saeed al-Shehabi, the only defendant to be sentenced in absentia, told Al
Jazeera that the charges were false and called the government's response

"The world has seen how peaceful the demonstrations were, for a month-long
period ... yet, they were condemned as being terrorists," he said.

A member of Bahrain's largest Shia group said the sentencing of the
activists as contradicting the government's calls for dialogue.

"Is this the atmosphere for dialogue?" asked Khalil Marzooq, a former MP
and member of the Islamic National Accord Association (Wefaq), in excerpts
of a speech he gave in Manama posted on his Facebook page.

Many unhappy

The Bahrain News Agency said the life sentences were issued against a
prominent Shia political leader, Hassan Mushaima; activists Abdulhady
al-Khawaja, Abduljalil al-Singace; and five others.

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, the
country's most prominent Shia opposition group, told Al Jazeera that many
people were unhappy about the sentences.

"Abdulhady al-Khawaja is one of the most respected human-rights activist
in the whole Arab region, so people are very angry," Rajab said.

"Hundreds of people have been brought up for charges in the past few days,
and hundreds more are waiting to be tried."

Maryam al-Khawaja, another member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights,
said that Abdulhady al-Khawaja's daughter, Zainab, was present in court
when he was sentenced and stood up and chanted "Allahu Akbar" [God is

She was violently removed from court and arrested. She was later released
after being charged with contempt of court and made to sign a pledge.

Al-Singace, who was released in February after six months in jail, was
also sentenced to life.

Nine of the defendants had been in custody on similar charges in the past
before being set free under a royal pardon in February aimed at calming
protests in Bahrain.

Following the pardon, Mushaima returned to the kingdom from self-imposed
exile in the UK.

Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular leftist group Waad, was
sentenced to five years. Waad had joined Wefaq in calling for political

Said Abdulnabi Shihab was also sentenced to life in absentia. Six other
defendants who are abroad and being tried in absentia were sentenced to 15
years in prison.

Authorities claimed the activists had sought to overthrow Bahrain's Sunni
monarchy and had links to "a terrorist organisation abroad".

Sand-and-debris roadblocks

Several villages had demonstrated on Tuesday night in solidarity with the
opposition leaders facing charges.

Residents and activists said small protests broke out in some areas to
chants of "Down, down [King] Hamad", as police cars rushed to block the
roads to the villages.

The government contests the opposition's estimate that some 400 people are
on trial, saying the number is far smaller.

Some activists sent telephone text messages calling on followers to
protest again on Wednesday to demand the release of the defendants and
rejection of the government's dialogue offer.

Four people have been sentenced to death and three others to life in
prison over the killing of two policemen. Nine others were jailed for 20
years after being convicted of abducting a policeman.

Authorities have said 24 people were killed during the month-long unrest,
most of them demonstrators.

Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, invited Saudi and other Gulf troops
in mid-March to help crush pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain protests flare after activists sentenced

By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Brian Murphy June 22, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Bahraini protesters poured back to the
streets Wednesday after a security court sentenced eight Shiite activists
to life in prison in the latest blow by the Western-backed kingdom to
cripple the biggest Arab Spring opposition movement in the Gulf.

The fast and angry reaction to the verdicts — the most significant display
of unrest in weeks — underscored the volatility in the island nation after
four months of unrest and raised questions about whether any credible
pro-reform leaders will heed calls by the Sunni monarchy to open talks
next week.

In size, Bahrain is little more than a speck off the coast of Saudi
Arabia. But it draws in some of the region's major players: hosting the
U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and serving as a growing point of friction between
Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Security forces used tear gas to drive back hundreds of Shiite marchers
trying to reach a central square in the capital Manama, which was once the
hub of their protests for greater rights. In other Shiite areas,
protesters gathered in the streets but were held back by riot police. No
injuries were reported.

Bahrain has allowed two major rallies this month by the main opposition
party, but the confrontations Wednesday were among the biggest challenges
to security forces since martial law-style rule was lifted June 1.

Shiites account for 70 percent of Bahrain's population of some 525,000,
but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being barred from
top government and political posts.

The protests — claiming at least 31 lives since February — have put U.S.
officials in the difficult position of both denouncing the violence and
standing by Bahrain's rulers and their call for dialogue. In response,
opposition groups have increased demands that include an end to the
political trials and withdrawal of a Saudi-led regional force helping prop
up Bahrain's ruling family.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was
"concerned about the severity" of the sentences and the use of the
military-linked security courts. He noted that President Barack Obama said
in May that "such steps are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's

"We continue to urge the Bahraini government to abide by its commitment to
transparent judicial proceedings, conducted in full accordance with
Bahrain's international legal obligations, and to create the conditions
for a meaningful, inclusive and credible dialogue," he said.

Bahrain's government said in statement late Wednesday that the convicted
activists were responsible for "bringing the country to the brink of total
anarchy" with a wave of marches and sit-ins earlier this year.

"Today's sentencing sends a message that law and order will be preserved,"
the statement said, pledging to guard against "attempts to overthrow the

The official Bahrain News Agency said those sentenced to life include
prominent Shiite political figures Hassan Mushaima and Abdul Jalil
al-Singace and rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Mushaima returned
from self-exile in London earlier this year after Bahrain's leaders
promised to erase old charges of opposing the state.

Pro-reform activist Ibrahim Sharif — the only Sunni among the suspects —
received five years in prison, while other sentences ranged from two to 15
years. The sentences can be appealed.

A leading opposition figure cast doubt on whether talks can get under way.

"We should conduct the dialogue in an open atmosphere, not when people are
being arrested," said Khalil al-Marzooq, who was among the 18 Shiite
parliament members who staged a mass resignation to protest the crackdowns
earlier this year.

The charges at the latest security court trial show the depths of the
tensions. The activists were convicted of trying to overthrow Bahrain's
200-year-old monarchy and having links to "a terrorist organization
abroad" — an obvious reference to claims that Iranian-backed Hezbollah is
behind the unrest.

Eight received life sentences while 13 others received shorter prison
terms apparently because they weren't considered leaders.

Bahrain's rulers fear that any Shiite gains in the country could open new
footholds for influence by Shiite power Iran.

Shiite leaders in Bahrain repeatedly have denied any ties to Iran and
accuse leaders of using the fears of Iranian string-pulling to wage
crackdowns that have included hundreds of arrests and purges from jobs and

Fourteen of the 21 convicted are in custody while the rest were sentenced
in absentia by the security court, which uses military prosecutors and a
military-civilian tribunal. Among the life sentences, however, all but one
of the suspects was in Bahrain.

Sharif's wife, Farida Ghulam, said her husband cried out "Our people
demand freedom" after the sentences were read.

Ghulam said al-Khawaja then shouted: "We will continue our struggle." His
daughter, Zainab, was dragged from court by female guards after she yelled
"Allahu akbar," or "God is great," said Ghulam.

The verdicts could also bring some direct diplomatic fallout. At least two
of those sentenced to life also hold European passports: al-Khawaja, who
is a Danish citizen, and Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, who has Swedish

The court has presided over a series of cases linked to the protests,
including issuing two death sentences against men accused of killing
police officers during the demonstrations. Earlier this month, it
sentenced a 20-year-old woman to a year in prison for reading poetry
critical of Bahrain's king.

Next week, a trial is scheduled to resume for more than 30 doctors and
nurses accused of supporting the protests. Some of the medical personnel
claim they were abused while in custody.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Barbara Surk in
Dubai contributed to this report.

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