Prosecuting politics: the judicial assault on Bahrain’s opposition

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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