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The Daily Need

Treatment of jailed Bahrain dissidents called ‘brutal,’ as activists call for U.S. action

An illustration released by Bahrain's state news agency depicting the military trial of 21 political activists, eight of whom were sentenced to life in prison Wednesday.

The son of one of Bahrain’s most prominent opposition leaders said in an interview Wednesday that the sentences handed down by a military court to 21 of the country’s most well-known political activists were pre-ordained, and that the jailed dissidents had been subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including physical abuse.

Ibrahim Sharif, the secretary-general of the National Democratic Action Society, was swept up in an early morning raid at his home in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, in early March. Sharif had called publicly for a gradual transition to a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, just as the state was executing a bloody crackdown on protests inspired by the so-called Arab Spring. Armed thugs raided his home and shoved a gun in his face, according to the accounts of family members, and he was whisked away to an undisclosed location along with several other opposition figures.

After three months of legal proceedings set up under the country’s emergency law, Sharif and 20 others were sentenced to jail time for “plotting to topple the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain,” according to the state Bahrain News Agency. Sharif, the only Sunni among the group, was sentenced to a relatively short five years in prison. Eight other Shiite dissidents, however, were given life sentences. They were also accused of conspiring with Iran, Bahrain’s increasingly powerful Shiite neighbor. After the sentences were handed down, the defendants pumped their fists in the air and chanted “peacefully,” a slogan from the protests, as they were dragged out of the courtroom.

Sharif Al Sayed, Ibrahim Sharif’s son and a 19-year-old student at the University of Michigan, told Need to Know that the result of the case had been obvious since the proceedings began, and was simply a show trial to provide cover for the government’s real goal of silencing its most vociferous critics. “Everybody knew exactly what was going to happen, it didn’t matter how much evidence my father’s lawyer presented showing that my father had no intention of overthrowing the government,” Sayed said. “It’s not a trial with a jury of your peers or anything like that. This is the very definition of a kangaroo court.”

Sayed also confirmed allegations made by human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, that the Bahrain government had employed harsh interrogation tactics in questioning the jailed dissidents. Sayed said his father had told his family that the prisoners were subjected to various forms of physical and psychological abuse, including “food deprivation, sleep deprivation and occasional beatings.” He said his father had lost a significant amount of weight in jail, and that, while his treatment may have improved as the case garnered more media attention, “At the beginning, they were particularly brutal.”

Though his sentence was shorter than those of his Shiite counterparts, Sharif was seen by many as perhaps the most threatening figure in the pro-democracy movement, because of his Sunni ethnicity. The government of Bahrain has attempted to discredit the uprising as sectarian strife provoked by the Shiite majority and aided by Iran. The fact that a Sunni politician was among the leaders of the uprising severely undercut those claims, and revealed rifts in the powerful Sunni minority. Sharif’s arrest, which came as a surprise to many observers, may have been a signal from the Bahraini government to the Sunni elite that “there are certain limits to what it’s going to accept,” said Charles Dunne, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights organization.

“The Sunni minority in the country feels very, very much threatened by what’s going on, and I think that expressions of splits within the Sunni majority are very troublesome to the government,” Dunne said. Bahrain’s government has cast the protests roiling the country as “ethnic clashes that are driven in large measure by Iranian influence and outside agitators,” Dunne said, “and if you have Sunni politicians in the mix, then that narrative begins to fracture.”

The response to the sentences from the international community so far has been fairly muted. In a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “deep concern [for] the harsh sentences” handed down by the court and urged “the Bahraini authorities to allow all defendants to exercise their right to appeal and to act in strict accordance with their international human rights obligations, including the right to due process and a fair trial.”

The United States, which has a key Naval base in Bahrain, has urged the Bahraini government to continue with its planned “national dialogue” on political reforms. A State Department spokesman said in a briefing Wednesday that the harsh sentences were “at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens.” Amnesty International, meanwhile, assailed America’s “soft” approach to the human rights violations in Bahrain, and said the West’s anodyne response was a factor in the court’s verdict.

Dunne also urged the Obama administration to be more forceful in its condemnation of Bahrain, and said the U.S. government could leverage its business and military relationships with Bahrain to put pressure on the monarchy. “Bahrain is trying to set itself up as a center for doing business in the region. It’s very much dependent on foreign investors and foreign businesses,” Dunne said.

“The U.S. government could do a much better job of focusing attention in a very public way on the violations that are going on there,” Dunne added. The administration’s rhetoric so far has been strong, he said, but “it has not been backed up by really any meaningful action.”

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