North Africa, West Asia

Prosecuting politics: the judicial assault on Bahrain’s opposition

If the government fails to inject real politics back into Bahraini society rather than relentless prosecution, the prognosis looks anything but positive.

Sam Jones
18 December 2016

Nabeel Rajab. Conor McCabe. Public Domain. The saying goes that the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slow, but grind exceedingly fine.

As seems to be the case in many authoritarian states, the Government of Bahrain may have taken this expression a bit too literally. Observers of the small Arab Gulf kingdom – not unlike its some 4,000 political prisoners – are hard-pressed to keep up with a laborious judicial system whose interminable fits and starts are rife with due process violations.

On one hand, Bahrain’s judicial proceedings do indeed grind unbearably slow, bogged down by excessive pre-trial detention periods and seemingly endless postponements. In political cases – a category under which prosecutions disproportionately fall in Bahrain – the government deftly exploits these practices to extrajudicially (or perhaps pre-judicially) punish protestors and activists while gradually diverting or exhausting international attention.

On the other hand, these proceedings can also grind incredibly fine – not in the sense of divine inevitability like our introductory idiom, however, but in the all-too-earthly sense of politicized legal tedium, by which the authorities capriciously parse Bahrain’s penal code to provide ad hoc justification for arbitrary prosecution.

Both sides of this purposefully dysfunctional coin can be seen in the case of leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, who is facing up to 15 years in prison for using Twitter and an additional year for charges stemming from a New York Times editorial.

Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), has been held in pre-trial detention since June and his court date has been pushed back on five separate occasions. Most recently, the government decided to delay in order for a ‘cybercime expert’ to determine if the Twitter account in question, for which Rajab’s already been detained six months, even belongs to him.

In one of the most extreme cases of prolonged judicial malfeasance, Bahraini authorities have held Khalil al-Halwachi, a political activist, in pre-trial detention for more than two years. Despite his deteriorating health, the courts recently postponed al-Halwachi’s trial for the twenty first time. 

But while individual detainees are often left to languish, the judiciary has proven more than able to move quickly and decisively to achieve the government’s larger goals.

As the government launched its campaign to suppress the pro-democracy uprising in spring 2011, Bahraini authorities mixed indiscriminate street violence with targeted strikes against the opposition societies

Indeed, the system’s punitive inertia – so common in cases like Rajab’s and al-Halwachi’s – is brought into especially stark relief by the well-oiled judicial campaign against the country’s chief opposition groups. Though formal parties are already outlawed in Bahrain, the authorities have consistently taken swift action against the existing opposition “societies” to silence criticism and impede organization at moments of strategic opportunity.

Particularly, the government has aimed to disrupt cross-sectarian and programmatic movements amongst these varied organizations, as demonstrated by its recently intensified assault on two of the country’s most prominent opposition societies, and ones that have long collaborated to advocate for reform: Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, a predominantly Shia Islamist group and Bahrain’s largest opposition society; and the leftist, secular Wa’ad (also referred to as the National Democratic Action Society).

From the roundabout to the courtroom

As the government launched its campaign to suppress the pro-democracy uprising in spring 2011, Bahraini authorities mixed indiscriminate street violence with targeted strikes against the opposition societies. Officials quickly suspended Wa’ad and government supporters twice ransacked its headquarters, burning parts of it to the ground.

Security forces arrested and tortured the group’s Secretary-General, Ibrahim Sharif, and he served four years in prison for his participation in the Pearl Roundabout demonstrations. Munira Fakhro, another Wa’ad leader, saw her home repeatedly attacked by pro-government gangs.

Al-Wefaq, meanwhile, was threatened with legal action and saw several of its former parliamentarians tortured and prosecuted, such as Jawad Fairooz and Matar Matar, the latter of whom had represented the largest constituency in Bahrain. Both were charged with offenses related to political speeches and participating in peaceful protests.

By September 2013, as Al-Wefaq negotiated with the government and other political factions during the National Dialogue process, the authorities also arrested the society’s second-in-command, Khalil al-Marzooq, before eventually dropping the charges in June.

Several months later, just before the November 2014 elections for Bahrain’s largely impotent lower house of parliament, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJ) asked a court to suspend Wa’ad and Al-Wefaq for three months.

The MOJ rescinded its order against Wa’ad on 9 November, but both societies boycotted the ensuing elections, citing widespread government interference ranging from ministerial intervention to targeted gerrymandering.

Within another year, the leaders of Wa’ad and Al-Wefaq would be arrested on charges related solely to peaceful political speeches. 

On 16 June 2015, a court sentenced Al-Wefaq’s Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman to four years in prison for “publicly inciting hatred, inciting civil disobedience of the law, and insulting public institutions.” His defense team was denied the right to present evidence, including recordings of the actual speech for which he was charged.

Around the same time, the government interrogated and/or arrested a number of other Al-Wefaq members on charges related to free expression, including Khalil al-Marzooq, Sheikh Hasan Isa, and Majeed Milad, who was ultimately sentenced to a two-year prison term.

Similarly, the authorities re-arrested Wa’ad’s Sharif on 12 July 2015, only three weeks after he was released from his previous imprisonment. He was sentenced to another year on charges of “inciting to change the country’s political regime, and publicly inciting hatred and contempt against the regime” after he spoke at an event commemorating a 16-year-old killed by the security forces.

Now, in equally rapid and destructive succession, the government has completely dissolved Al-Wefaq and renewed its judicial harassment of both societies’ leadership.  

On 14 June 2016, the MOJ submitted a request to the courts to suspend Al-Wefaq’s activities; within two hours, the request was approved for immediate effect. Before the end of the day, Bahraini authorities froze the society’s assets, halted its activities, closed its headquarters, and blocked its website.

By October, while detainees like Rajab and al-Halwachi continued to await trial, an appeals court had confirmed Al-Wefaq’s dissolution and – in a particularly mafia-like coup de grace – the government began planning to auction off the society’s assets.

Over the same time period, the judiciary found Al-Wefaq’s Sheikh Ali Salman guilty of a previously dropped charge, extended his total prison sentence to nine years, and then abruptly ordered a retrial. After two brief hearings – the second reportedly lasting just a minute – the courts rendered their newest ‘final’ judgment for the opposition leader on 12 December, again sentencing him to nine years in prison. 

While it might be tempting to view even the opportunity for a retrial as cause for optimism in Bahrain’s broken judiciary, one would be well-advised to keep that sentiment cautious: prosecutorial appeals and “double jeopardy” trials are common features of Bahrain’s legal system, and ones that can potentially allow the government to secure new, harsher punishments for long-resolved cases. 

This is exactly what the public prosecution reportedly sought with Sharif, mere months after the Wa’ad leader emerged from his second prison term in five years. Although Sharif completed his most recent incarceration period in July 2016 and was released, he faced up to 13 more years for the same offenses on appeal.

An appeals court confirmed the original one-year sentence on 7 November, but it remains unclear whether the prosecution will continue pursuing the case.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the government briefly levied additional charges against Sharif for speaking with the Associated Press (AP). Though these charges were dropped amid international pressure on 23 November 2016, the government’s renewed harassment of Sharif comes amid a heightened campaign against Bahrain’s human rights defenders and political figures, including an interrogation and travel ban for Wa’ad’s current Secretary-General, Radhi al-Musawi. 

An “addiction” to prison?

It remains to be seen what apparent opportunity precipitated this newest phase in the judicial assault on Bahrain’s opposition – perhaps, as some have suggested, it is motivated by a more assertive Saudi Arabia urging redoubled commitment to the Gulf’s monarchical status quo – but it seems abundantly clear that the government will continue to leverage the state’s entire legal machinery to seize it.

Bahrain’s perverse ‘justice’ system has attained the highest per capita incarceration rate in the Middle East

As Sharif sardonically alluded to in his momentarily criminal AP interview, this campaign is generating an “addict[ion] to prison” in Bahrain. It’s an apt comparison, as Bahrain’s perverse ‘justice’ system has attained the highest per capita incarceration rate in the Middle East, a dubious distinction that places the approximately 630,000-citizen country at 33rd in the world.

Fortunately, this devastating addiction has an obvious cure: rather than continue to substitute and subvert politics with the quick fix of judicial assault, the government can work to restore open dialogue and foster democratic change.

Its current path – an overdose on authoritarianism – leads only to increased instability and the deterioration of a once-thriving civil society.

As I’ve suggested, the government may think it can inevitably forestall these reforms, or that its judges can simply rule the opposition out of existence.

But, like most addictions, denial and indulgence are self-defeating. If the government fails to inject real politics back into Bahraini society – in the place of relentless prosecution – the prognosis looks anything but positive.

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