Bahrain court delays ruling in activists case

Hearing postponed by a week amid fears for one of the defendants, who has spent more than two months on hunger strike.

Bahrain’s highest appeals court has postponed for a week a decision in the case of 21 pro-democracy activists convicted last year of plotting to overthrow the government.

The Court of Cassation said on Monday that it will deliver its verdict on April 30; it offered no reason for the delay.

The activists were arrested last April and convicted by a military court; their convictions were upheld in September by a civilian court. Seven of them are currently outside of Bahrain and were convicted in absentia. 

The fourteen activists inside the country are all serving lengthy jail terms: half received life sentences, and half are serving between five and 15 years in prison.

None of the defendants were present at Monday’s hearing. Witnesses reported a large security presence outside the Court of Cassation on Monday morning, though no protests or other incidents were reported.

“They can delay the verdict again, but if they do, they have to provide a reason,” said Faten al-Haddad, an attorney who has worked on the case.

The convictions have been widely criticised by local and international human rights groups. Amnesty International, for example, has called the jailed activists “prisoners of conscience.”

‘Critical’ condition

One of the defendants is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the human rights activist who has now spent 75 days on hunger strike to protest against the convictions. He was one of the seven activists given a life sentence.

His case has become a rallying point for the opposition; posters bearing his likeness are a common sight at protests.

The Bahraini government continues to insist that his claim to be on hunger strike is exaggerated. In a statement on its Twitter feed on Sunday, the interior ministry said “there is no truth to the rumors of the condition of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. He is in good health and will meet Danish ambassador [sic] today at 10am”.

[Al-Khawaja is a Danish dual citizen, and lived there in exile for decades until Bahrain declared a general amnesty in 2001.]

It has been difficult to obtain reliable information about his condition: His lawyers were not allowed to meet with him over the weekend, and the Danish ambassador, who met al-Khawaja on Sunday, has not commented on his condition. His family has not been allowed to see him for more than a week.

But a medical source with recent knowledge of al-Khawaja’s health has described his condition as “critical.” He has lost nearly one-fifth of his body weight since beginning his hunger strike in early February, and fatty deposits have accumulated on his liver, a common symptom of malnutrition and starvation.

Al-Khawaja also has a low white blood cell count, which makes him more vulnerable to infection, and mild anemia, both of which can be symptoms of starvation, the medical source said.

His wife, Khadija al-Mousawi, said that he stopped drinking water over the weekend, raising fears that his condition could quickly deteriorate further. The Danish government offered earlier this month to take custody of al-Khawaja, but Bahrain denied that request.

Tensions after Formula One race

Tensions have been running particularly high because of the Formula One grand prix this past weekend. The Bahraini government had hoped the race would be a sign that things were returning to normal, after more than a year of unrest.

But the chaotic weekend proved to be a public-relations disaster for Manama. A protester, Salah Habib Abbas, 37, was found dead in the village of Shakhura on Saturday morning.

Rights groups said he was attacked by police during a march, and on Monday they released graphic photos of his body which appeared to show injuries from a close-range blast of birdshot. “He had birdshot wounds in his chest and abdomen,” said his brother, Hussein Abbas Habib, who also said Salah was also beaten on the hands, back and legs, according to Reuters.

Thousands of people turned out for his funeral on Monday afternoon, and the funeral march quickly gave way to clashes between protesters and police; the former burned tyres and the latter fired off volleys of tear gas, according to witnesses.

Dozens of people were arrested, including a group of female protesters who went to the racetrack to chant pro-democracy slogans.

Police also detained several activists working with foreign journalists, including Mohammed Hassan, who worked with The Telegraph, and Ala’a Shehabi, a British-Bahraini academic who was arrested while driving in her car with a group of reporters.

More than 80 people have been killed in Bahrain since widespread unrest began in February 2011, and protests continue almost nightly in villages outside the capital.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies