Activists say Bahrain has more than 1,000 political prisoners, the highest per capita in the region.
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) has called on Bahraini authorities to release political detainees detained for supporting Qatar during the 2017 GCC crisis.
Speaking to Doha News on Tuesday, DAWN’s Director Of Advocacy Raed Jarrar said it “makes no sense” for Bahrain to continue to imprison individuals over a diplomatic rift that has been resolved.
“DAWN joins the calls of the human rights community in Washington, DC on the governments of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to release all political prisoners, including those political prisoners who were convicted pertaining to the now resolved crisis with Qatar,” said Jarrar.
The DAWN official added that the prisoners “should not have been imprisoned in the first place” and Bahraini authorities have “absolutely no reason to keep them in prison” since the crisis with Qatar has been lifted.
The 2017 diplomatic crisis was triggered when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposing an illegal land, air and sea blockade on the country.
The quartet claimed the blockade was in response to Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, though Doha repeatedly and vehemently rejected those claims as baseless.
Shortly after imposing the blockade on Qatar, Bahrain criminalised any form of sympathy for Doha, declaring it a crime punishable by imprisonment of up to five years and a fine.
The UAE also issued the same policy, saying that those caught sympathising with Qatar could face a possible 15-year sentence.
While the crisis ended with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration in January 2021, political prisoners accused of sympathising with Qatar remain behind bars. Jarrar noted that Bahrain has more than 1,000 political prisoners and has the highest number of political prisoners per capita in the region.
Responding to the number of prisoners jailed for the Qatar-related accusation, Jarrar said his research team was unable to get specific data as such figures are not easily accessible.
“But whether they are one or a 100, DAWN joins the calls on the Bahraini government to release all of them immediately. They should not have been imprisoned in the first place,” noted Jarrar.
Among the prominent cases is an ongoing imprisonment of opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, whose sentence was renewed in 2017 on charges related to holding a phone call with Qatari diplomats. Salman was the general secretary of Al Wefaq – Bahrain’s largest opposition party that was disbanded during 2011 Arab Spring protests.
While he was initially sentenced to four years in 2015 for supporting the protests, his sentence was extended for the Qatar-related accusations.
Despite being acquitted of all charges in 2018, the prosecutor’s office appealed the ruling, giving him a life sentence instead.
Echoing Jarrar’s sentiment, David Haigh, Human Rights Lawyer, told Doha News that Bahraini authorities should “immediately and unconditionally release all those sentenced on abusive and unjust charges”.
“Their initial arrest and detention was an unconscionable breach of the most basic human rights standards, their continued detention is an insult to Qatar and the principles of the GCC. One wonders if such acts are evidence that the true feelings of the Bahrain rulers to Qatar remain not ones of friendship but of foes,” added Haigh.
US and regional human rights
The case of many Bahrainis prisoners of conscience was raised once again this week after the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, attended by leaders of the GCC+3—Jordan, Iraq and Egypt—as well as US President Biden.
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with his Bahraini counterpart King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on the sidelines of the summit, the first such meeting since the 2017 GCC crisis.
“The self-proclaimed king of Bahrain is chilling with the [amir] of Qatar while there are prisoners of conscience in Bahrain imprisoned on charges of communicating with Qatar,” tweeted Maryam Alkhawaja, Bahraini Human Rights Defender, on Saturday.
Maryam’s father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has been imprisoned in Bahrain since 2011 following pro-democracy protests during the country’s uprising. On 22 June 2011, a Bahrain military court sentenced Al-Khawaja to life imprisonment.
Maryam herself, as well as her sister -both key figures in the 2011 revolution – were also imprisoned before being forced into exile.
“It is high time that allies of Bahrain such as the UK and the US intervene and bring an end to such flagrant abuses of human rights by Bahrain and their political games in the GCC using innocent prisoners as political pawns,” said Haigh.
Jarrar said that DAWN had sent multiple letters to the Biden administration and met with the White house “many times in the last few weeks”.
The DAWN official said the rights agency wanted “to deliver a strong message to this administration that they are [neglecting] their promises to centre human rights in their foreign policy.”
“When President Biden ran for office, he made grand promises to centre human rights, to call for the release of political prisoners, to stop all US policies and practises of supporting and aiding abusive and apartheid governments in the region,” said Jarrar.
Biden has come under fire since announcing his regional visit, which started with the Washington’s life-long ally, Israel. Activists and Palestinians worldwide criticised the American leader for his failure to condemn Israel’s ongoing human rights violations against the indigenous people of Palestine.
The US president has also been under pressure to condemn the Zionist state for killing veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who is also an American citizen.
In Saudi Arabia, activists accused Biden of turning a blind eye to human rights and contradicting his past statements on the kingdom, especially following the killing of late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
During his presidential campaign, Biden had pledged to make the kingdom a “pariah” state, a statement that he claims was made with no regret. Despite this, Biden was in Saudi Arabia fist-bumping Saudi Crown Prime Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MbS.
Various investigations, including one by the CIA, concluded de-facto Saudi leader MbS ordered the horrific killing of the dissident back in 2018. Separately, a 2019 UN investigation concluded that the crime was a “premeditated extrajudicial execution”.
The DAWN official also expressed the rights agency’s disappointed in the Biden administration’s failure to address human rights and negotiating the release of political prisoners.
“Unfortunately, the administration continued its policies around the Middle East business as usual. We see the same kind of blank check policies with almost every country in the region that the United States has been supporting for the last decade,” said Jarrar.
On the eve of Biden’s visit, UAE security agents detained Asim Ghafoor, the ex-lawyer of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Ghafoor, a US citizen and DAWN board member, was detained by officers in plainclothes while transiting to Istanbul to attend a family wedding.
On Sunday, Abu Dhabi Criminal Court sentenced the ex-lawyer of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to three years for alleged “crimes of money laundering and tax evasion”.
The UAE’s press agency (WAM) reported that the Emirati court accused Ghafoor “of committing two crimes of tax evasion and money laundering related to a tax evasion operation in his country”.
Ghafoor is also facing deportation from the country and a hefty AED 3 million fine.
The UAE claimed that the arrest came “upon the American authorities’ request for judicial assistance regarding their investigations of the accused for tax evasion and making suspicious money transfers to the state”.
However, the US said it “has not sought the arrest” and requested additional information on the case.
“The Emiratis have spoken to their rationale for the detention,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
Meanwhile, DAWN is waiting for more updates from Ghafoor’s attorney in the UAE.
“We are calling for respect to due process and we’re waiting to get more information before proceeding with any additional calls for the US or UAE governments,” said Jarrar, describing DAWN’s engagement with the State Department and White House as “efficient”.
At the time of his arrest, the rights group urged Biden to cancel his meeting in Saudi Arabia with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ).
Despite this, Biden met with MbZ and invited him to visit Washington. DAWN had also informed the State Department about Ghafoor’s detention two days ahead of the meeting.
“The US government has not only given a blind eye to violations by so-called allies of the US, but the US has also contributed to violations by oppressive and apartheid regimes in the region,” said Jarrar.
“The US is an active partner in crime to many of these governments in the Middle East and North Africa,” he added.