Bahrain must drop all charges against three men who have been arrested amid ongoing violations of the “rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association” in the Gulf country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.
The appeal on Tuesday by the international rights group comes after three independent United Nations experts expressed concern over the “alleged arbitrary detention and subsequent arrests” of four people – including three minors – following protests in the town of A’ali in 2021 against Bahrain’s normalisation of ties with Israel.
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HRW said Jalal al-Qassab, Redha Rajab and Mohamed Rajab were set to go on trial on Tuesday after being charged under a law that criminalises “expression that ‘ridicules’ any of Bahrain’s ‘recognised religious texts'”.
All three defendants are members of the Al-Tajdeed Society, “a group that advocates open discussion and questioning about religion and Islamic jurisprudence”, according to HRW, which accused the government of targeting the men for “merely exercising their right to free expression and belief”.
“No one should ever be on trial merely for peacefully expressing their own views about religion,” Niku Jafarnia, Bahrain and Yemen researcher for HRW, said in a statement.
She noted the trial is set to begin shortly before Bahrain hosts the Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly, a global organisation of national parliaments “committed to promoting democracy, equality, human rights, development and peace”.
HRW further charged “the trials are taking place against the backdrop of the Bahraini government’s attempts to whitewash its human rights abuses and display an image of reform and tolerance internationally”.
Bahrain has been accused of widespread crackdowns following pro-democracy protests in 2011.
In 2021, a decade after the protests began, Amnesty International said the kingdom had failed to recognise key recommendations of an independent commission established by King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa following the unrest.
HRW said a “number of activists, bloggers, and human rights defenders continue to be imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression” in the wake of the 2011 protests, including rights advocate Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and academic Abduljalil al-Singace.
In December, three UN rapporteurs sent a letter to Bahrain’s government expressing concerns over the arrests of human rights activist Yusuf Ahmed Hasan Kadhem, 17-year-old Ali Mustafa Majid Maki and two unidentified 16-year-olds following their participation in the anti-Israel normalisation protests in October 2021.
The letter, which was made public earlier this month, said the four defendants were charged in absentia to one-year imprisonment in May 2022. All four were interrogated without the presence of a lawyer, it added.
It noted that the two younger individuals were released after their families paid a fine. Kadhem and Maki remain in detention.
“Without prejudging the accuracy of the above allegations, we wish to express our concern over the alleged arbitrary arrest and conviction [of the defendants] over charges that may be directly related to the exercise of their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” the letter said.
“… We wish to convey our concern over the alleged infringements of [the defendants’] rights to a fair trial and due process,” the rapporteurs added, seeking clarification from Bahraini authorities.
On February 15, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had received a reply from the government. That reply had not yet been made public.