Bahrain's Hard Justice: Activists Sentenced to Death and Life

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Hasan Jamali / AP

A car passes a pro-government billboard vilifying opposition leaders in Muharraq, Bahrain, May 8, 2011.

In February, the wheelchair-bound, gray-haired Shi'a anti-government activist Abduljalil al-Singace was released from a six-month prison stint in Bahrain. He celebrated by joining a Shi'a anti-government rally that marched to the King's palace in Riffa. There, he was sought out and congratulated by hundreds of admirers. Several weeks later, he was re-arrested in a pre-dawn raid and taken to a prison in the island nation's capital Manama. After that, news of Singace — one of the island kingdom's most famous opposition figures — grew scarce.

Then, a week ago, Singace was sentenced to death in a military court, along with seven other prominent Bahraini activists, the highest-profile verdict in the weeks since the regime began trying arrested members of the opposition. Another 13 were handed sentences ranging from two to 15 years in prison. Among those facing life are Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and father of two prominent female activists, and Hassan Mushaima, who, upon return from a period of exile in February, had made a promise to form a Shi'a Islamist party. Ibrahim Sharif, who heads the country's opposition Waad party, received five years.

Khawaja's daughter, Maryam, says her father's lawyers had been given 15 days from the sentencing date to file an appeal and that the proceedings had "not come close" to international fair trial standards.

In a statement, Bahrain's Military Prosecutor said the men had been convicted of "plotting to violently topple Bahrain's government, inciting violence, destroying property and passing forward sensitive intelligence information to a terrorist organization in a foreign country." On June 14, Human Rights Watch issued a note slamming the country's ongoing trials as unjust. "International human rights bodies have determined that trials of civilians before military tribunals violate the right to be tried by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal," it said.

Meanwhile, another high-profile group — 48 medical workers the regime has accused of aiding the anti-government movement by treating wounded protesters — has gone on trial in Manama this week. "In the last few weeks, several defendants' families have called [us] with disturbing allegations that their relatives are being tortured and forced to sign false confessions while in custody," says Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights. "By insisting that detainees be tried in restrictive military instead of civilian courts even after the state of emergency was lifted, the Kingdom of Bahrain is sending a message to the international community that it is unconcerned with conducting fair and open trials."

The harsh sentences could have an effect on the regime's ability to hold a dialogue with the opposition about reform. It has been pressured by the international community since the violent conflict began in mid-February. In his May 19 speech on Middle East policy, President Obama noted that "the only real way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail," and, in a meeting in Washington earlier this month, he encouraged Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, a proponent of dialogue, to begin the talks in earnest.

But the sentencing of Singace and his cohorts "sends a message that the regime simply isn't genuine about national dialogue," says Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Institute. "If they were, the last thing they would want to do before it starts would be to sentence opposition leaders to life in prison. Their attempts at national dialogue are for show. If you're interested in it, you have to get people to the table. Nothing the regime has done up until now has suggested that they're serious about meeting the opposition halfway."

Equally troubling are the violations that rights groups say the regime has committed during the closed-door proceedings. Sentences have been handed down at the country's National Safety Courts. The government claims they are not military courts, but evidence points to the contrary. According to Amnesty International, the courts are ruled by two civilian judges and one military judge, continuing Bahrain's practice of keeping military officers in its courts -- a military prosecutor had demanded that seven protesters be put to death in April. "Civilians," says HRW's Sanei, "should not be tried in these types of courts." He calls the trials "a travesty of justice," and says that HRW believes "that a lot of these charges are politically motivated and the trials do not conform to international fair trials standards."

According Sanei, defendants have all but denied access to their attorneys during interrogations. Meanwhile, there have been allegations that prisoners were beaten or tortured and given little time to meet with counsel to prepare their defense. "Any meetings with counsel were short little chats in the presence of other people," Sanei says, adding that international standards require the provision of enough time to meet privately with attorneys. Human rights and legal organizations have not been allowed to monitor the trials. (Local Bahraini rights workers and handpicked officials from the U.S. and U.K. embassies were allowed limited access, then gag-ordered.)

Next for the defendants is the appeals process. "There may be some sentences decreased," Sanei says. "The process as a whole is severely flawed to begin with, regardless of what happens [next]. "Sentencing opposition leaders to life, that's only something you do in the most repressive of regimes," Hamid adds. "It suggests that Bahrain should be put in the category of full autocracy right now."

In March, as he marched towards the palace in Riffa — not far from where he would later be handed his life term — Singace expressed "hope" for a conciliation, or talks, between the opposition and its ruling family. "We just want peace," he said then. The government can no longer pretend to hold that view.