Washington, DC: Today, the Government of Bahrain sentenced prominent human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja to life in prison following a retrial of his case in civilian court on security-related charges. In response to a petition filed by Freedom Now, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion in its most recent session that the Bahraini government’s detention of Mr. al-Khawaja is arbitrary and a violation of international law. The UN Working Group—an independent panel of human rights experts from around the world – calls on the Bahrain government to release Mr. al-Khawaja.

Mr. al-Khawaja was arrested on April 9, 2011, days after speaking at an anti-government demonstration in Manama. He was originally prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison by the National Safety Court—a military tribunal—on a number of charges, including financing and participating in terrorism to overthrow the government and spying for a foreign country. Under international pressure to comply with the recommendation of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry report (BICI), Mr. al-Khawaja’s conviction by a military tribunal was reviewed by the Court of Cassation. The court ordered that he be retried in a civilian court. Mr. al-Khawaja’s retrial along with 12 other defendants was closed to the public and the Bahraini government again failed to provide evidence of his involvement in illegal activities.

In its opinion, which released only recently to Freedom Now, the Working Group concluded that Mr. al-Khawaja’s arrest was due to his exercise of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. According to the Working Group, the charges against Mr. al-Khawaja—including membership in a terrorist organization—and facts supplied by the Bahraini government were “vague” and “raise doubts as to the actual purpose of detention.”  The Working Group also concluded that throughout Mr. al-Khawaja’s arrest, detention, and trial, “the Government violated numerous international norms to the right to fair trial”, including “access to a lawyer to adequately prepare his defense” and “freedom from physical pressure, abuse and torture.”

“We are greatly disappointed that Mr. al-Khawaja has once again been tried and wrongfully sentenced for exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Freedom Now’s executive director Maran Turner. “Despite assurances from the regime that they are working to correct past injustices and respect human rights, today’s verdict shows that they are unmotivated to complete the task. It is our hope that the international community will join the United Nations in condemning the Bahraini government’s egregious violations of international law and call for Mr. al-Khawaja’s immediate release.”

Freedom Now represents Abdulhadi al-Khawaja as pro bono international legal counsel.