United Nations High Commissioner says Bahrain detention sentences ‘regrettable’

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Protest wall in Manama, Bahrain September 2012
Protest graffiti shows on a wall in Manama, Bahrain asking for ‘freedom’ for incarcerated prisoner of conscience Nabeel Rajab. A well-known human rights activists for years, Rajab was arrested and recently sentenced to 3 years in prison because of a Twitter comment he made that was seen by Bahraini officials as an ‘insult’ to the Bahrain Royal Family. Rajab has for many years also been the head director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.  Image: Naval

(WNN/UN) United Nations, Geneva, SWITZERLAND: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Thursday said that the Bahraini appeals court’s decision to uphold the convictions of 20 human rights activists and political opponents was deeply regrettable.

The individuals were initially convicted last year by the Court of National Safety, essentially a military court, on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the Government, among other charges. Some were also charged with espionage. The convictions were subsequently upheld by the National Safety Appeals Court. In September last year, the Government announced that all the cases would be transferred to civilian courts. The High Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld the convictions and sentences, including life sentences against seven of the individuals, that were imposed by the military courts.

“I had welcomed the Bahraini Government’s decision to transfer these cases to civilian courts, as military trials of civilians raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial and independent administration of justice is concerned,” the High Commissioner said.

“But now, given the gravity of the charges, the scant evidence available beyond confessions, the serious allegations of torture and the irregularities in the trial processes, it is extremely disappointing that the convictions and sentences have been upheld in appeals proceedings that often took place behind closed doors.”

The appeals proceedings began in open session, but the court subsequently closed the hearings, purportedly for national security reasons.

“None of the courts so far adequately addressed the defendants’ allegations that they were tortured in detention and forced to make confessions under duress,” Pillay added.

She recalled that the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in November last year found a discernible pattern of mistreatment of certain categories of detainees, for the purpose of obtaining incriminating statements or confessions.

Last month, in a separate case, prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of taking part in illegal gatherings.

Pillay reiterated her call to the Bahraini authorities to release all those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.

“Criticizing the Government and calling for reforms are not crimes,” she said. “The Government must engage in an open, genuine and meaningful dialogue with the opposition, across the political spectrum. This is the only constructive way to defuse an increasingly tense situation.”