Bahrain – Government must stop targeting of lawyers including Abdulla al-Shamlawi by way of long standing, unfair restrictions on freedom of expression

London / Beirut – 7 February 2021

Bahrain – Government must stop targeting of lawyers including Abdulla al-Shamlawi by way of long standing, unfair restrictions on freedom of expression

Due process under renewed attack as legal profession facing an emerging wave of repression

Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (SALAM DHR), today urged the Government of Bahrain (GoB) to end the renewed wave of repression of lawyers. 

In a growing number of cases since 2019 and 2020, state prosecutors have used flawed provisions relating to freedom of expression long known to fall far short of international standards in order to silence lawyers. 

The organisation also called on the GoB to grant greater powers and autonomy to the Bahrain Lawyers’ Association.

As the tenth anniversary of the 2011 unrest approaches, SALAM DHR urged the GoB to heed repeated recommendations of United Nations human rights treaty bodies and bring laws relating to freedom of expression, association and assembly in line with treaty obligations willingly taken on by the GoB.

On 17 January 2021 Bahrain’s Supreme Judicial Council ordered renowned lawyer ‘Abdullah ‘Abbas Habib al-Shamlawi to present himself at the General Secretariat Building of the Supreme Judicial Council on 8 February 2021. The order is pursuant to disciplinary complaint No.4/2021 made against the lawyer by the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments.

‘Abdullah al-Shamlawi was the lawyer for Sheikh Ali Salman and Isa Qasem (or: Qassim) and he has highlighted flaws in the administration of justice in Bahrain since 2011.

A government controlled body, the Supreme Judicial Council – not the Bahrain Lawyers’ Association – deals with such cases. They tend to be completed quickly and can result in a warning, temporary suspension or the permanent revocation of the lawyer’s license to practice law.

The Public Prosecutor accused ‘Abdullah al-Shamlawi of publicly inciting hatred against a group of people and deliberately causing inconvenience on the basis of tweets leading up to one of 9 September 2019. The tweets constituted a peaceful expression of conscientiously held belief or opinion and did not incite violence or hatred. 

On June 30, 2020, the Lower Criminal Court sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment – suspended – including bail of 100 Bahraini Dinar (around USD$265). Following an appeal, the High Criminal Court  a 100 dinar bail to suspend the punishment. On 4 July 2020, SALAM DHR expressed its concern in relation to the case against him and the Bahrain Lawyers’ Association’s lack of independence.

After the lawyer appealed against the decision, the High Criminal Court upheld the ruling, and increased the duration of the suspension to three years. Following a further appeal set out on 7 October 2020, on 11 January 2021 the Court of Cassation upheld the initial ruling. 

The following week, on 17 January 2021, the authorities revealed their intent to target ‘Abdullah al-Shamlawi by initiating the disciplinary case against him, despite the fact the unfairly imposed case relating to freedom of expression did not relate to his work as a lawyer; the legal profession or conduct relevant to the profession. The Bahrain Lawyers’ Association supported ‘Abdullah al-Shamlawi in respect to the government’s claim against him: several representatives attended proceedings to show their support.

Over the past year, the GoB has targeted three other lawyers in connection with freedom of expression:

  • According to a June 2020 report, on 28 May 2020 the authorities detained lawyer Rashid al-Binali for ‘publishing false news’ in connection with Covid-19. He had reportedly expressed the opinion that the illness did not exist but that it was a means to obtain the public’s money. While they released him on 8 June 2020, we do not have current information regarding the case against him.
  • On 1 June 2020, the Public Prosecution summoned Fatima al-Hawaj in connection with a tweet said to glorify Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander, Qasem Solemani, whom US military forces killed in January 2020. QWhile she was at liberty during investigations into her alleged wrongdoing, we do not have information concerning the current status of the case against her. A 9 October 2020 report indicates that Fatima al-Hawaj also faces another, unrelated case in which he authorities accuse her of misconduct relating to witnesses in court proceedings relating to a civil case on inheritance in a well known family. The Public Prosecutor accuses the lawyer of “having worked to obliterate the truth, mislead justice, […] act against and violate law
  • An August 2020 report stated that the Public Prosecution summoned lawyer ‘Abdullah Hashem for the dissemination of false news and in connection with public order allegations arising from tweets he is reported to have posted concerning property developments linked to members of  Bahrain’s ruling family. The report stated that the government prosecutors suspended him from the legal profession for one week in May 2019, including for “spreading false news”.

The authorities reportedly took steps to restrict expression and detained others – not lawyers – under Bahrain’s flawed laws relating to freedom of expression. Measures included the 9 May 2020 shutting down of an online seminar addressing Bahrain’s relations with Israel while the discussion was underway.

In its November 2018 Concluding Observations on Bahrain’s implementation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee stated in paragraph 54 that the GoB “should protect freedom of expression, in accordance with article 19 of the Covenant”. In particular, it should:

(a) Decriminalize blasphemy and insulting and criticizing public officials;

(b) Consider decriminalizing defamation and, in any case, apply criminal law only in the most serious cases, bearing in mind that, as stated by the Committee in its general comment No. 34 (2011) on the freedoms of opinion and expression, imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for defamation;

(c) Release immediately and unconditionally anyone held solely for the peaceful exercise of his or her rights, including human rights defenders, activists, lawyers and trade unionists; and 

(e) Effectively protect journalists, activists and human rights defenders from attacks or intimidation and ensure that all human rights violations perpetrated against them are thoroughly investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice.

By virtue of the 29 January 1981 Decree No.5  of the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments concerning the legal profession, the government controls the licensing of lawyers; the Bahrain Lawyers’ Association serves as a form of collective representation and has no other formal role in the licensing, disciplining or professional development of lawyers. 

According to paragraph 23 of the 1990 Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, “Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly.” Paragraph 28 states that “Disciplinary proceedings against lawyers shall be brought before an impartial disciplinary committee established by the legal profession, before an independent statutory authority, or before a court, and shall be subject to an independent judicial review.

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