Correction: Bahrain story

AP News
Posted: Aug 15, 2012 12:35 PM
Correction: Bahrain story

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — In a story Aug. 14 about a case involving imprisoned activists in Bahrain, The Associated Press erroneously identified a group as Human Rights Defenders Program. That group is part of Human Rights First, based in the U.S.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Bahrain delays verdict for prominent activists

Bahrain court delays verdict in case of 20 prominent activists sentenced in crackdown


Associated Press

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A Bahrain court on Tuesday delayed until next month its verdict in the retrial of 20 prominent activists convicted by a military-led tribunal in crackdowns against an uprising in the Gulf kingdom.

Addressing his nation Tuesday, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared his commitment to "progress, prosperity, good governance" and said he supported the idea of dialogue.

In a nationally televised speech before the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he did not speak directly about the 17-month crisis, mentioning only the "difficult challenges" citizens have endured during the past year.

The court case Tuesday was one of the highest profile cases outstanding from the crackdown on protests. A ruling is expected to give some indication of what measures the Sunni monarchy is prepared to take serious steps toward ending the crisis in the country.

Relatives and rights groups expressed disappointment over the delay.

In the original trial, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and seven other opposition leaders were sentenced to life in prison. The other 12 were given lesser prison terms as part of a group convicted of anti-state crimes, seven of them in absentia.

Al-Khawaja went on a 110-day hunger strike.

Authorities threw out the military court verdicts in April and ordered retrials by Bahrain's highest appeals court. That court said it will issue a verdict Sept. 4. The ruling said the judges needed more time to study the cases.

For months, the jailed activists have fought the sentences, claiming violations of legal rights in the now-defunct military court and torture behind bars.

Bahrain's majority Shiites, inspired by Arab Spring protests elsewhere, launched an uprising last year, seeking to limit the wide-ranging powers of the ruling Sunni dynasty. At least 50 people have been killed in the unrest in the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Brian Dooley, director Human Rights Defenders Program of the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights First, said the delay raises doubts about the regime's commitment to reforms.

"Looks like the Bahrain regime is unable or unwilling to take the hard decisions on reform, pushing this case down the calendar," he said by email. "The delay doesn't help their claims to want reconciliation."

Relatives and supporters of the 20 came early to the courthouse, expecting a decision. Security was tight, with barricades ringing the courthouse and scores of police officers on duty. Several female relatives dressed in black managed to get into the courtroom and, according to defense attorneys, could be heard chanting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Great."

"It is annoying after 18 months of coming and going to have the trial postponed," said Farida Ghulam, the wife of the prominent Sunni politician Ibrahim Sharif, who is one of the 13 detained. "We want true justice. These leaders are not criminals but were convicted for their opinions."

Clashes were reported overnight between riot police and anti-government protesters emboldened by the expected verdict.

The court handed down several lesser verdicts in five unrelated cases. Four involved the kidnapping of police officers, and in another, a Pakistani mosque official had his tongue cut out. The incidents allegedly took place during last year's unrest.

Of the 27 defendants in those five cases, the court acquitted 11, reduced the sentence of five and upheld sentences, ranging from one to 15 years, against 11 others.

In his speech, the king did not offer any new ideas for ending the crisis, nor did he comment on the trial of the 20 activists. He spoke in generalities about promoting democracy and warned citizens to remain on alert for threats from outside the country — a veiled reference to Iran, which Bahrain has blamed for stoking the crisis.

"We have been quite alert and well aware of hostile ambitions," Hamad said. "However, we are not unaware of our internal problems, and we have always striven to solve and overcome them like other countries that respect their peoples and seek what is in their best interest and welfare."