Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the United Nations human rights office today voiced concern at the harsh sentences handed down this week by a court in Bahrain to medical professionals, teachers and others as a result of pro-democracy protests earlier this year.
The sentences range from three years’ imprisonment to the death penalty, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told a news conference in Geneva. The Court of National Safety, effectively a military court, also upheld the sentences of 21 others.
“For such harsh sentences to be handed down to civilians in a military court with serious due process irregularities raises severe concerns,” said Mr. Colville, who noted that the court is headed by three judges, all of whom are appointed by the chief of the Bahrain Defence Force, and cases are prosecuted by military public prosecutors.
Mr. Ban voiced concerns about due process irregularities in a statement issued by his spokesperson.
“The Secretary-General calls for the release of all political detainees and reiterates his appeal to the Bahraini authorities at the highest level to ensure the application of due process and respect for international human rights norms,” the statement said. “This will contribute to conditions for national dialogue, reconciliation and reform as sought by all the Bahraini people.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) also spoke out today, with a spokesperson stressing that health-care workers must be able to carry out their duty to treat injured people, regardless of their political affiliation, and even in times of conflict.
Fadéla Chaib told reporters that health-care workers should never be punished for doing what is morally and ethically required, and that medical facilities must also be protected.
OHCHR understood that defendants have had limited access to lawyers and that lawyers had insufficient time to properly prepare the defence of their clients in most cases. Also, the court has not been investigating torture allegations and does not permit recording of the proceedings, all of which caused serious concern.
“We call on the Government to ensure that every detained person is charged with a recognizable criminal offence and has enough time to prepare a defence case,” said Mr. Colville.
The Government, which has been has engaged in a violent crackdown against protesters calling for greater democracy, has announced that all cases will be referred to civilian courts in October.
While OHCHR welcomes this announcement, it said that it is unclear how appeals by those who have been convicted in military courts will be handled in the civilian courts.
The Office has spoken out repeatedly in recent months over harsh sentences issued by the court against protesters with charges ranging from participating in an illegal gathering, or expressing hatred of the Government, to actual crimes such as murder and destruction of property.