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UN experts urge Bahrain to drop charges against women activists for government criticism

GENEVA (29 December 2014) – A group of United Nations independent human rights experts* has urged the government of Bahrain to drop charges against three women human rights activists exercising their rights to free expression and free association. “Deprivation of liberty on the sole ground of having exercised the right to free expression may be considered arbitrary,” the experts warned.

Ms. Maryam Al-Khawaja, the co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, was sentenced on 1 December, in absentia, for allegedly assaulting airport security officers. Her sister, Ms. Zainab Al-Khawaja, a women’s rights and social media activist in Bahrain, was sentenced on 4 December to three years in prison and fined 3,000 BHD (7,900 USD) for tearing a picture of Bahrain’s King during a court hearing in October. Several days later, she was sentenced to an additional year for “insulting a public servant” and is facing further charges for insulting a police officer and trespassing.

The two women activists are daughters of Mr. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who has been in detention since 2011 and was the subject of numerous calls by UN experts for his release.

Ms. Ghada Jamsheer, head of the Women’s Petition Committee, a network of Bahraini women human rights defenders who campaign for the codification and reform of Bahrain’s family laws, was detained for more than three months since mid-September at Isa Town women's prison on charges of ‘defamatory tweets’ and for her critical views about corruption in the management of a local hospital. Since 15 December, she has been under house arrest and is currently facing twelve charges, including new charges of ‘assaulting a police officer’ during her detention.

“All three activists have been detained or sentenced purely for their criticism of government authorities,” the independent experts said. “Such criticism is not only fully legitimate according to Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law; it is also essential to the free and public debate necessary for a healthy civil society.

“We are extremely concerned about the ongoing harassment and criminalization of activists in Bahrain,” they added. “We urge the authorities to turn away from such persecution and immediately drop all the charges against the Al-Khawaja sisters and Ms. Jamsheer.” 

On a number of occasions the experts have expressed their grave concerns to the Bahraini Government concerning the harassment of these and other human rights defenders, including Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. They urged the authorities to review Bahraini laws and practices to be compliant with Bahrain’s obligations under human rights law, especially the freedoms of expression and association and the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of liberty.

(*) The experts: Mads Andenas, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

The UN human rights experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. For more information, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx

Arbitrary Detention: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Detention/Pages/WGADIndex.aspx
Freedom of expression: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx
Human rights defenders: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx
Peaceful assembly: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/AssemblyAssociation/Pages/SRFreedomAssemblyAssociationIndex.aspx

OHCHR Country Page – Bahrain: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/BHIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Jamshid Gaziyev (+41 22 917 9183 / jgaziyev@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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