THE BLOG

Derision on Prison Indecision

Once again, the Bahrain regime has passed on taking a meaningful decision on reform. This morning the appeal verdicts were set to be handed down in the trial of 13 of the nation's leading dissidents, including prominent activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja. The men were initially given long sentences by a military court after an unfair trial and have been in prison since early last year. All were convicted on trumped up, politically motivated charges and should be immediately and unconditionally freed.

The date for these appeal verdicts was set weeks ago and much of the country waited nervously to see what would happen. Twitter buzzed with minute by minute updates: "The families are in the court... Judge has arrived... The relatives are chanting".

But, as with previous cases, the judge announced only a postponement. Now the defendants must wait another three weeks, until September 4, to discover their fate. This morning's failure to issue verdicts suggests a growing paralysis at the heart of the Bahrain government. The world is watching to see what the verdicts will be, and they keep getting putting off. It makes the regime appear indecisive and faintly ridiculous.

The trial this morning was, unfortunately, not unique. On July 4, 28 medics who were prosecuted after treating injured protestors last year were also summoned to court to hear their verdicts. They sat and waited. And waited. Eventually the judge appeared and announced there would be no verdicts and they'd all have to come back on September 4. One of them, neurosurgeon Nabeel Hameed, told me after the postponement was announced: "Our suffering continues and our future is unclear. All the medics are disappointed as it means our lives continue in suspended animation."

The 28 medics are out of prison while they await their fate, unlike the 13 dissidents. Prominent human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al Khawaja are also waiting in prison. They were both jailed in recent weeks for peacefully expressing their views and have had their appeal dates continuously postponed. Zainab was in court this morning for her verdict which was kicked down the calendar until August 28. Nabeel was supposed to hear a verdict on Sunday, August 5 but it has been postponed twice, to August 12 and now the 16. He is serving a three-month sentence for posting a tweet criticizing the Prime Minister.

The regime appears unable to take a decision on these key cases. It has painted itself into a corner where it risks clashing with extreme loyalists if it drops the charges against all these people, and international criticism if it confirms their sentences. So it does neither, and appears rudderless and indecisive, in denial about the choices it has to make.

There is a reflex to constantly buy more time. In June international human rights observers, including myself, who wanted to judge for ourselves the government's claims on human rights progress were told we'd have to wait several months more before we'd be allowed in.

But while time drags on without meaningful reform, the protests across the country intensify, some of which have developed a violent edge. The regime needs to find something better than its current Ostrich Strategy if it's to convince anyone that it is serious about reform. It should drop the charges against the 13 dissidents, the 28 medics, against Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al Khawaja, and against all those convicted in sham trials. But that would mean making a decision.