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'We expected the verdicts'

Interview: Kerstin Knipp / nhSeptember 8, 2012

Several members of the opposition in Bahrain have been given long-term prison sentences. Human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja criticizes the verdicts.

Image: privat

Deutsche Welle: Mrs al-Khawaja, the verdicts passed against the human rights activists are extremely severe. They range from 5-year prison sentences to life imprisonment. The defendants were indicted among other crimes for 'forming terror groups'. Are you surprised by the sentences?

Maryam al-Khawaja: We had expected them, and so we weren't shocked. The sentences don't mirror the state of the legal system in Bahrain because we all know it's not independent anyway. But what the sentences do mirror is the increasing confidence of the regime. The reason is that the international community remains passive and so there are no consequences regarding human rights violations.

Why do you think there is no international pressure?

Bahrain is a very important country – both geopolitically and economically. In addition, it has very close ties to Saudi Arabia. Both states try to prevent international pressure regarding human rights violations.

Does this concern the entire international community, or are there different positions in different regions?

What we're seeing is that the EU has a relatively high potential to influence the situation in Bahrain, whereas the United States has clear-cut interests in the country. Many Bahraini human rights activists are comparing the US position to Bahrain with that of Russia regarding Syria. We're seeing that US interests are standing in the way of pressure against the government of Bahrain. And so, if you are expecting countries to exert pressure, you'd have to look at countries like Denmark, Norway, Switzerland – or South Africa.

The appeal process which just ended was not held before a military tribunal but before a civil court. What's your assessment?

The proceedings provide a vivid example for the fact that the regime uses the judiciary as an instrument to prosecute its citizens. That's why it doesn't matter whether it was a civil court or a military tribunal. The decisions will always be made by the same people.

There have been accusations that the use of torture is widespread in Bahrain's prisons. What do you know about that?

Several defendants have reported that they have been abused physically, psychologically and sexually. Individual reports may differ. But many of the accused have read out statements in the court rooms in which they describe the torture they were subject to in the prisons. Unfortunately, this has not led to any further investigation.

How does the opposition movement in Bahrain assess the verdict? Has it helped intimidate them?

I can't speak for the opposition movement because I'm not a member myself. But initially, the Bahraini opposition movements didn't demand the release of political prisoners. At the beginning, they only demanded that human rights be respected, that they be institutionalized and that the government appoint a human rights ombudsman. The verdicts that have just been passed don't stop the opposition. They are now calling for political prisoners to be released. But even if all the sentenced people were released there would still be demonstrations and protests.

The government of Bahrain claims it has already started reforms in the area of politics and human rights. How do you explain this statement?

The regime has indeed taken a few steps, in compliance with the Bassiouni report that was published in November last year. But we've observed that most of the human dignity violations that are mentioned in the report are still being committed. You can say that the recommendations have only been implemented superficially. The main result of the implementation would have been to stop human rights violations altogether. But as long as they happen on a daily basis we can only speak of superficial changes.

Maryam al-Khawaja is vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.