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Bahrain: Front Line's Andrew Anderson highlights the denial of justice in the trial of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja
Bahrain's rulers condemn themselves by sentencing my friend to life in prison
Abdulhadi Al Khawaja is a dear friend and former colleague who worked with us at Front Line up until February this year coordinating our work with human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. Today a military court in Bahrain sentenced him to life imprisonment on charges including ”organising and managing a terrorist organisation” and “attempt to overthrow the government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country”.
The Bahraini Government has been trying to repress the protests which broke out in February calling for democracy and human rights and an end to corruption. They have also repeatedly insisted they are in favour of dialogue and reform and that the evidence of the killings of peaceful protesters and the torture of detainees was fabricated. However, despite reportedly paying for expensive PR advisers in Washington and elsewhere to manage their message, they have been unable to silence the truth about what they have done and have failed utterly to make any kind of credible case against those they have charged and condemned.
Front Line has sent four missions to Bahrain in the last three months and has followed closely the trial of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja and the 20 others charged with him. Two London based barristers were separately denied access to observe hearings but Front Line's Director Mary Lawlor did attend one session in June. However, the reports of those who have had access to what have in effect been political show trials paint a sorry picture of Bahrain's attempt at “justice.”
Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was beaten when he was arrested, detained incommunicado and tortured so severely that he had to undergo an operation on his head in a military hospital. He has been denied access to his lawyer except for brief meetings when he has been brought to court. He and his lawyer have been silenced when they have sought to raise concerns about torture in the courtroom. No investigation has been made by the court in regard to the evidence of torture to Abdulhadi and others.
The case presented by the military prosecutor has lacked credibility or any substantive evidence. Two witnesses for the prosecution were identified by those present in court as security service employees, one of whom has reportedly been identified as having been directly involved in acts of torture. These unconvincing witnesses were unable to present anything other than outlandish allegations and were deemed too weak to be submitted to cross-examination. The defence were denied permission to bring witnesses. The date for sentencing was announced prior to the presentation of the defence lawyers' final statements.
It is clear that the Bahraini authorities hate and fear my friend Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, a distinguished human rights defender who is known and loved for his work in support of others across the Middle East. Since his arrest we have had a flood of messages of concern from across the region. One hundred and twenty human rights defenders from Morocco to Yemen signed a declaration of solidarity with him.
When I was in Bahrain in April to press for Abdulhadi to have access to his family and lawyer I was told by Bahraini diplomats, government lawyers and police representatives that he was guilty of terrible crimes, that he had duped the international community but that in reality he was a terrorist and religious extremist in the service of the Iranians. There was real anger in the voices of some of these men when they talked about my gentle friend who at that point had not officially been charged with anything.
But you can tell a lot about a man by his friends.
Suad Al-Gedsi a courageous women's rights defender from Yemen said, “I know Abdulhadi in person very well. He is an exceptional rights activist, working independent from any sect or political party.”
Abdulhadi had worked tirelessly for the release of the veteran human rights defender Haithem Al-Maleh in Syria who has now been forced into hiding but wanted to send this message:
“Sadly, all security apparatus in the Arab World have one thing in common; namely persecuting the thinkers and virtuous people based on their activism and work defending the rights of others. I hope that Mr. Al Khawaja will be released soon, and that the detention files in the Arab World will be closed.”
I have worked with Abdulhadi and socialised with him. I have met his fantastic family, I have eaten in his home. I have even played football with him. He is a good man, a gentle man.
President Obama said a few weeks ago, "mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens." It is time to bring an end to the madness of show trials and torture. Its time to free Abdulhadi Al Khawaja.
Andrew Anderson is Deputy Director of Front Line, the Dublin based International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders www.frontlinedefenders.org