Democratic Opening in Bahrain Needs Release of All Prisoners of Conscience

That Bahrain released 137 people on August 9th is good news, but it also shows the scale of arrests, done in full view with little criticism. Five weeks ago, President Barack Obama hailed the launch of a national dialogue by the Bahraini government as an "important moment of promise for the people of Bahrain." The government lifted the state of emergency on June 1st and started the national dialogue a month later, but continued to arbitrarily hound bloggers, the media and journalists. Clearly the regime is saying one thing, but doing another.

Earlier in the year, President Obama pointed out that "mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens" and recalled the necessary constitutional separation of powers -- particularly between the executive and judicial. Reporters Without Borders urges the United States to renew its pressure on Bahrain, a leading U.S. ally in the Gulf, and to secure the support of Saudi Arabia, whose has strong influence over Bahrain. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia must work together to pressure the Bahraini authorities to cease violating their citizens' rights to free expression and assembly by arbitrary arrest and prosecution, to release prisoners of conscience, and to continue the national dialogue in good faith.

On June 22nd, a military court imposed long jail sentences on 21 activists and civilians supposedly on charges of belonging to terrorist organizations and trying to overthrow the government. These actions violate international human rights standards. But this is not the sole irregularity observed in the trial. According to some of the defendants and their families, the suspects were tortured or mistreated while in detention.

Eight of them, including the human rights activist and blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, were given life sentences. The head of the pro-democracy and civil liberties movement Al Haq, Singace has been in jail since March 16th, for allegedly trying to destabilize the government because he used his blog to denounce the deplorable state of civil liberties and discrimination against Bahrain's Shiite population. He had been arrested several times since 2009 for the same reasons.

The other 13 suspects got sentences ranging from two to 15 years in prison. The blogger Ali Abdulemam, tried in absentia, got 15 years. Abdulemam is regarded by fellow Bahrainis as one of his country's Internet pioneers and is an active member of Bahrain Online, a pro-democracy forum that gets more than 100,000 visitors a day despite being blocked within Bahrain. A contributor to the international bloggers network Global Voices, he has taken part in many international conferences at which he has denounced human rights violations in Bahrain. He was arrested in 2005 for criticizing the regime in his blog and was detained again from September to February 2011, but he avoided re-arrest and has been in hiding for several months.

And of course, none of them were amongst these 137 released prisoners.

There are limits to the regime's leniency. Two royal decrees signed on June 29th were an attempt to silence international criticism. The first makes it possible for civilians to be tried in civilian court instead of the martial ones when they are accused of destabilizing the government. It also makes it possible for them to appeal to the highest civilian appeal court to fight against the rulings of the national security appeal court. The other, Decree No. 28, created a commission of enquiry into the incidents that took place in the kingdom during February and March.

These were obviously positive measures but they should have been retroactive and they should have applied to Singace and Abdulemam and all the media personnel who were convicted prior to the decree. The authorities will have to quickly demonstrate that this is not a smokescreen and there is a real will to reconcile the nation. And as President Obama pointed out in a May 19th speech on Bahrain: "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."

Encouraging this dialogue was actually the grounds for the release of now more than 200 people since February but none of them have been acquitted, in the absence of an official order from the king. They include Hamza Ahmed Youssef Al-Dairi and his son, Ahmed Youssef Al-Dairi (the administrators of an online forum, who were arrested on April 1st and released on July 4th), the blogger Ali Omid and two photographers, Hossein Abbas Salem and Mohamed Ali Al-Aradi.

But these releases fail to disguise the censorship methods employed in the kingdom. Even before last spring's developments, Bahrain was on the list of "Countries Under Surveillance" in the Reporters Without Borders annual survey of "Enemies of the Internet," because the government uses a strict system that filters content of a political or religious nature, content regarded as obscene and content that is deemed to insult the royal family. Since June 9th, the security forces have controlled the Facebook and Twitter pages of Rasad News -- an important source of information about human rights violations in Bahrain -- using them to put out reports critical of the demonstrators. PalTalk, an online voice and video chat service that allows communication between different networks, has reportedly been blocked since the start of June. And a new news website critical of the government, BahrainMirror, has been inaccessible since June 5th.

The international community must press Bahrain to drop all charges still pending against prisoners of conscience and to quash the sentences of those that have been convicted, including the bloggers Ali Abdulemam and Abduljalil Al-Singace. Despite the initial reforms and the few releases, Bahrain continues to violate freedom of the media and information and the international community's reactions are still timid or non-existent.

The international community must not put oil and financial interests before justice and fundamental rights. It must not turn a blind eye to the fate of activists in Bahrain or let itself be won over by theories of an Iranian conspiracy or government talk of possible religious conflict. Human rights and dignity cannot be defended solely in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Bahrain's human rights activists have every right to be regarded as part of the Arab Spring movement as well.