Interview: Tortured Human Rights Activists on Trial

354348125_53f3048b36_bWe’ve all heard of the film Sleepless in Seattle, sildenafil full of romance and racy scenes.

Now the world can feast their eyes on Boycotting in Bahrain, sale a much more dramatic saga featuring repression, torture and vote rigging.

While the political junkies of the world have their eyes peeled on the US midterm elections this Tuesday, the tiny Middle Eastern island kingdom of Bahrain is engaged in its own parliamentary elections, replete with explicit government crackdowns on three opposition groups and a kangaroo-court-style trial of over two dozen human rights activists, opposition activists and bloggers.

Bahrain, a strategic American military partner and home to the US Fifth Fleet, is a Shiite majority country ruled by a Sunni minority, at the top of which is the royal al-Khalifa family. The Gulf state has been plagued by high levels of sectarian tension for decades.

Two months ago the Bahrain Ministry of Justice announced a crackdown on three Bahraini opposition groups — the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Haq Movement and the Al-Wafa Islamic Movement — ahead of this month’s elections for 40 members of the Council of Representatives. Bahraini national security forces arrested some two dozen human rights activists, opposition members, dissident clerics and critical bloggers, accusing them of (among many charges) “forming an authorized group which incites to overthrow the government.”

The opposition groups, which are officially illegal in Bahrain, jointly called for a boycott of the elections, the first round of which was held on October 23 and the next is tomorrow, October 30. “

Among a number of claims, the groups cited the “manipulation of election through votes cast by military service members and thousands of naturalized foreigners who live outside Bahrain,” the “legalization of dictatorship,” corruption and “the plundering of national treasury and lands” and “the absence of international and local monitoring.”

The 23 defendants went on trial yesterday.

Earlier today caught up with Mohammed Al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights and one of the few people to have observed yesterday’s trial. What are the official charges against the activists?

Mohammed Al-Maskati: These people are on trial for 10 to 11 charges, mostly centered around terrorism and spreading false news about the situation in Bahrain to the rest of the world. They are also accused of financially supporting terrorist groups. Is there any evidence or reason to believe that any of the defendants have been involved in terrorism?

Mohammed Al-Maskati: Everyone accused is either a human rights defender, political activist, religious cleric or blogger. What happened in the courtroom?

Mohammed Al-Maskati: All of the defendants told the judge that the national security had tortured them and tried to get them to confess. Some of them also told the judge of sexual abuse. And the judge’s response?

Mohammed Al-Maskati: There are 20 lawyers, and they had 6 or 7 demands for the judge. The first was to dismiss the case and open an investigation into the torture of the defendants. Another was to investigate the activities of the public prosecutor. These requests were denied.

A third demand was to have all of the accused officially checked by doctors who can examine all the marks on their bodies and determine if they were tortured. The judge ordered that five of the defendants be checked.

The lawyers also demanded that the detainees be transferred to another prison (where they are less likely to be tortured). The judge granted this request, too.

The lawyers also asked the judge for permission to meet the detainees outside of court, which they have not been allowed to do, and for the right to see the public prosecutor’s ‘evidence’ against their clients. This was also accepted by the judge. To what degree is the public aware of the trial?

Mohammed Al-Maskati: There weren’t many observers there, just a few diplomats, me, a representative from Amnesty international and that’s it… The public knows about the case’s existence, but the public prosecutor has prevented the local media, especially newspapers, from publishing any information about it beyond what they provide. In other words, the defense lawyers and their families cannot speak with the newspapers about the case. What can those of us outside Bahrain do to help?

Mohammed Al-Maskati: Activists outside of Bahrain should publicly demand that Bahraini authorities stop targeting human rights activists and opposition groups, release all the detainees and launch an independent investigation into the allegations of torture.

The trial will continue November 11, so contact anyone with influence: your nearest Bahraini embassy (click here to email the Bahraini ambassador to the US) the Ministry of Justice, the king and the prime minister.

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Photo credit: takomabibelot (flickr)