Bahrain activist verdicts send tough message on protest

An appeals court in Bahrain upheld life sentences for eight of 20 activists who helped drive last year's reform protests. Talks have started with some opposition groups, but expectations are low.

Hasan Jamali/AP
Masked anti-government protesters burn tires on the main street of the western village of Malkiya, Bahrain, Sept. 4, responding to court rulings earlier in the day. A Bahrain court Tuesday upheld jail sentences against 20 opposition figures convicted of plotting to overthrow the Western-allied government, including eight prominent activists facing life in prison.

A Bahrain appeals court Tuesday upheld eight life sentences and other sentences ranging from five to 15 years against 20 political and rights activists central to last year’s pro-reform protest movement.

The verdict in the case, which had become a symbol of the government’s crackdown on the opposition, sends a signal that government concessions are unlikely even as officials begin low-level talks with some opposition groups.  

“It’s a message to the international community, before the people of Bahrain, that this regime is not going to change its attitude,” said Khalil Marzouk, a leader in the Al Wefaq political society, the largest opposition group.

The activists, seven of whom were convicted in absentia and 13 of whom are in prison in Bahrain, were convicted by a military court of charges including violating the Constitution, conspiracy to overthrow the government, and espionage. They were arrested as authorities sought to crush a protest movement that began in February 2011 calling for democratic reform.

Some of the convicted are prominent human rights activists, like Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who was sentenced to life in prison. Others, like Ebrahim Sharif, sentenced to five years, are leaders of opposition political movements. In a speech last year, President Obama implicitly called for their release. “You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” he said. 

Bahrain, a tiny island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, hosts the US Fifth Fleet, a bulwark against Iran’s influence in the region. The US has been reluctant to strongly criticize its ally even as security forces killed and tortured protesters and the government failed to enact reforms that would bring a political solution to the crisis. Protests continue, and the sectarian divide has grown increasingly bitter. The protest movement is mostly made up of members of Bahrain’s majority Shiite population, while the monarchs are Sunni.

The ruling family has implemented some reforms in the past year, but the opposition calls them superficial measures that fail to address demands for a more representative government.

Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, says the verdict sends a signal that the talks beginning between the government and some opposition groups may not get very far.

“I think it sends a message to the opposition that they should keep their expectations low,” she says, adding that the government may keep the case as a possible bargaining chip for the dialogue. (The case can be appealed to Bahrain’s Supreme Court.)

In other negative signs for the talks, the parties taking part do not represent those most hostile to the government. Many of the youths who protest and skirmish with police weekly say groups like Wefaq, which has not called for the downfall of the monarchy as many protesters have begun to do, does not represent them. The government wants Wefaq to rein in the more radical groups, but “it's just not clear that Wefaq can do that without greatly weakening itself unless it's got something that it can show to the people on the streets,” says Ms. Kinninmont.

Without government concessions and real reform, an end to the standoff is hard to see, she says. “It's hard to see any real willingness to compromise, and I think if they're really just expecting the opposition to compromise, it's not likely to be successful. I don't see any real strategy for dealing with the root causes of the unrest.”

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