Revolution of the Lawyers

BAH_9347When we last checked in at the trial of 23 tortured human rights activists, stomatology Change.org members had just won a victory against Starbucks after the manager apologized for willingly agreeing to an unofficial government request to lock the families of torture victims inside the store and then kick them out.

Life for the 23 human rights activists, women’s health opposition activists, dermatologist bloggers and dissident clerics all on trial for treason, however, has been less rosy.

Activists have been kicking up a storm ever since the tiny Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain, a staunch US military ally, arrested their colleagues, tortured them and put them on trial. But a less known story of resistance has come from a more subtle, surprising part of the courtroom: the lawyers.

Last summer a number of opposition groups, which are officially illegal in Bahrain, jointly called for a boycott of upcoming elections for 40 members of the Council of Representatives. 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, “the plundering of national treasury and lands” and “the absence of international and local monitoring.”

Eager to maintain an aura of democracy for the outside world, the Bahrain Ministry of Justice responded with a harsh crackdown on Bahraini opposition groups, in particular the Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Haq Movement and the Al-Wafa Islamic Movement. Some two dozen human rights activists, opposition members, dissident clerics and critical bloggers were arrested almost immediately and charged (among many things) with “forming an authorized group which incites to overthrow the government.”

The 23 defendants have been brutally tortured, for months on end, ever since.

Human Rights activists getting tortured and on put trial?
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Meanwhile, a snowballing legal drama involving a veritable revolution of lawyers has been unfolding.

The trial of the ‘Bahrain 25′ (two of the defendants are outside the country and being tried in abstentia) began in on October 28, not coincidentally the same week as the elections. The prosecution presented some 10 charges against the men, most related to terrorism or the dissemination of false information about Bahrain, which is a crime.

The defendants told the judge that their interrogators and jailers had tortured them and tried to get them to confess. Some also claimed sexual abuse.

The defense team, which at the time was made up of 20 lawyers, demanded that the judge dismiss the case and call for an investigation into the torture claims and the activities of the public prosecutor.

The lawyers asked for permission to meet with their clients, a request they had not been granted, and to see the public prosecutor’s ‘evidence’ against their clients. These requests were accepted by the judge, who also ordered that five of the defendants be checked by a state-appointed doctor.

The trial was postponed.

13 of the detainees were in fact examined by a “senior forensic science consultant“, who in his infinite senior forensic scientist wisdom determined that severe bruising, swelling, cut and burn marks on a number of the detainees were not signs of torture.

At the next session of the trial, on November 11, the defense attorneys again requested that an independent medical body check the detainees. The judge refused this request.

The trail was postponed, again. And again. Each time the lawyers would demand an independent investigation into the claims of torture, and each time the judge would refuse.

On December 9, the fourth session of the trial, the lawyers just quit… all 20 of them.

The judge called for a recess and after half an hour returned to find the 23 detainees without any legal representation.

“We don’t have lawyers,” the defendants said when asked by the judge what had happened. “And we don’t want other lawyers.”

The judge had no choice but to suspend the trial, again.

At the next hearing, on December 23, the government had a team of 19 lawyers appointed to defend the ‘Bahrain 25′. But the new defense team refused to begin without the detainees’ consent to represent them. The judge said the detainees’ consent was not needed, but the defense team insisted, correctly pointing out that Article 20 of Bahrain’s constitution gives a defendant the right to choose his or her counsel.

The judge then asked the ‘Bahrain 25′ if they would accept being represented by the new, government-appointed defense team.

Big shocker: the detainees said no, and all 19 government-appointed lawyers quit on the spot.

Trial postponed, again.

Next hearing, January 13: the government appoints yet another team of lawyers to defend the human rights activists. They, too, refuse to defend the detainees without their consent. The defendants refuse and the third defense team quits.

Today, January 20: another hearing. Same charade, except this time the lawyers argued about constitutional law. The newly appointed defense argued that they have no right to defend the clients according to Article 20 of Bahrain’s constitution. The prosecution argued that Article 216 of the Bahraini Criminal Code doesn’t indicate any requirement for the detainee’s consent. The defense then asked that the case be transferred to the supreme court. The judge did not respond, postponing the trial again until this Thursday, January 27.

“No one wants to take the case,” Mohammed AL-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society For Human Rights told Change.org. “The judiciary is in a bind. The lawyers refused to cooperate with them, most lawyers in Bahrain refuse to defend the accused, and the judge will not be able to continue the case without lawyers.I think that eventually either the judiciary will have to respond to the demands of lawyers and investigate the torture allegations or close the case.”

The revolution of the lawyers has certainly raised the ire of the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs, who decided to punish all 24 state-appointed lawyers who quit the case, forming a disciplinary committee to look into what happened. The committee’s first meeting will be this Tuesday, January 25.

There is no question we can have an effect here. The Change.org petition campaign has garnered a lot of attention on local Bahraini blogs and forums and in the international press. A number of local activists have told Change.org that international pressure on Bahrain is the best hope for the detainees, so please sign and share the petition.

“Thanks for all your work and please continue doing so,” Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights told Change.org. “The government and the ruling elite are not happy that they are so exposed internationally in a way which is turning out to be very costly to Bahrain’s image.”

“We always knew that our judiciary was corrupt and not independent, but the whole world knows that today,” he said. “After five months of a security crackdown and media campaign against human rights defenders and political activists the government not only did not gain anything but lost a lot in terms of image and international reputation. We will continue to urge the government that political and human rights problems cannot be solved through military means, but only through political dialogue.”

Winning this and similar campaigns depends on our ability to quickly call on thousands of supportive folks like you. After signing the petition below, please click here to help us win!

The photos used in this post were donated to Change.org by a photographer who was questioned by Bahraini security forces after the Starbucks incident. The photographer has asked us to refrain from printing their name.