Four United Nations independent human rights experts today urged authorities in Bahrain to immediately release a human rights defender serving a life sentence handed down by a military court on alleged terrorism-related charges.
Bahrain’s National Safety Court, a military court, sentenced Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja to life imprisonment on 22 June last year, after he was put on trial along with more than 20 other human rights defenders, the Special Rapporteurs said in a joint press release.
The Court rejected an appeal September 2011, and Mr. Al-Khawaja’s case is being reviewed by the Court of Cassation, which is due to deliver its verdict on 23 April. Mr. Al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike since 8 February and despite assurances from Bahraini authorities, reports and photos documenting his poor state of health continue to emerge.
“I am seriously concerned that Mr. Al-Khawaja’s trial and sentence are linked to his legitimate work to promote human rights in Bahrain,” said the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. “This case is sadly emblematic of the overall treatment of human rights defenders in Bahrain.”
The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association, Maina Kiai, expressed similar concerns about Mr. Al-Khawaja’s detention being directly linked to his human rights activities in the context of the on-going protests in Bahrain. There have been renewed clashes in Bahrain between security forces and demonstrators since February, a year after widespread civil protests first emerged in the country.
“Restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly on the grounds of national security should not be used to suppress the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and activists,” said Mr. Kiai.
The Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, voiced grave concern over the trial of Mr. Al-Khawaja and other human rights defenders who were collectively tried before a military court, despite the fact that they were civilians.
Allegations that the defendants made confessions under duress have reportedly not been investigated and evidence obtained under torture was reportedly not excluded from the trial – in contravention of international law, the human rights experts said.
“The Government of Bahrain has failed to take necessary measures to ensure the physical and mental integrity of Mr. Al-Khawaja in accordance with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners,” said the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez.
The experts added that in light of his health, they strongly called on the Government of Bahrain to seriously reconsider the offer by Denmark to transfer, on humanitarian grounds, Mr. Al-Khawaja – a citizen of both countries – to Copenhagen for medical treatment.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not United Nations staff, nor are they paid for their work.