2 May 2012

Retrial announced for al-Khawaja and other activists

The hunger strike of al-Khawaja told in pictures. See GraphicJournalism.org for the full image
The hunger strike of al-Khawaja told in pictures. See GraphicJournalism.org for the full image
Bahrain has announced a retrial for hunger-striking political activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and 20 others accused of plotting against the state in the Arab Spring protests last year, report the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International and Human Rights Watch. The IFEX members are disappointed that the activists remain in custody pending the retrial, and are calling for their immediate release.

Al-Khawaja is to be tried in a civilian court - rather than a military court as before - but no date has been set for the retrial. The "Guardian" says the move was part of an effort by the Bahraini government to respond to domestic and international criticism of its policies.

Twenty other activists sentenced alongside al-Khawaja in 2011 also won retrials (seven in absentia because they remain at large). Seven of the 21 are fighting life terms, including al-Khawaja and blogger and human rights activist Abduljalil al-Singace, while the others face terms of two to 15 years.

Another of those convicted, Al Hurra Yousif Mohammed, had his two-year sentence reduced to six months and was released because of time served.

A three-month hunger strike and an energetic campaign by family, supporters and IFEX members have kept al-Khawaja's case in the spotlight, especially in the run-up to the recent controversial Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain.

Al-Khawaja, who has dual nationality with Denmark, is in a military hospital in serious condition, having lost 25 percent of his body weight. The Bahrain defence forces denied in a statement that he was being force-fed.

Al-Khawaja's family insisted he must not remain in custody. "Abdulhadi al-Khawaja did not go on hunger strike saying death or retrial, he said death or freedom," his daughter Maryam wrote on Twitter. "A retrial doesn't mean much."

Al-Khawaja's wife, Khadija al-Moussawi, told the BBC, "I think it is ridiculous. What sort of legal process is this? They are playing for time, and should have transferred his case to a civilian court at the first hearing, not the third."

The court of cassation decision is in line with the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Investigation (BICI) appointed by King Hamad al-Khalifa, which found al-Khawaja and others had suffered prolonged torture while in detention.

According to Human Rights Watch, the commission said those convicted in the so-called "national safety courts" had to be re-tried in civil courts, and that the government should void convictions and release those people peacefully exercising their rights to free expression and assembly.

But the government made clear it still viewed the case as serious. "We are talking about 21 people who called for the overthrow of the monarchy using violent means," said Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, chief government spokesman, in his comments to the "Guardian". "In due course new evidence will be presented in a civilian court to prove that point."

Regular protests continue in villages outside the capital. Human Rights Watch said in a new report that Bahraini police were still beating and torturing detainees, including minors, despite the recommendations of BICI and public commitments to end torture and police impunity.

At least 31 people are reported to have been killed since the BICI report was launched in November, says BCHR.

"Bahrain has displaced the problem of torture and police brutality from inside police stations to the point of arrest and transfer to police stations. This abuse contradicts one of the most important recommendations of the independent commission and shows why investigations and prosecutions of abusers to the highest level are essential to stopping these practices," said Human Rights Watch.

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