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Mon 21 Nov 2016 01:54 PM

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UK gov't urged to call for release of Bahraini activist

Human Rights Watch says Ebrahim Sharif charged over criticism of recent visit to Bahrain by Britain's Prince Charles

UK gov't urged to call for release of Bahraini activist
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Deputy King, Crown Prince of Bahrain pose next to a Spitfire at the Bahrain Museum on day 3 of a Royal tour of Bahrain on November 10. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The UK government should call for the release of a prominent Bahraini political activist who was charged with “inciting hatred of the political system” after he criticiced the recent visit to the Gulf kingdom by Britain’s Prince Charles, a rights group has said.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Ebrahim Sharif, former leader of the National Democratic Action Society, could face a prison term of up to three years, adding that it is a "clear violation of his right to free expression".

On November 11, an Associated Press article reported that the Prince of Wales had made a state visit to Bahrain, part of a seven-day tour of the Gulf undertaken at the request of the British government.

The article quoted Sharif expressing concerns that the visit could “whitewash” Bahrain’s human rights situation and the government’s "absolute power".

The Bahrain News Agency said in a November 13 statement that Sharif, had “defamed Bahrain’s constitutional system”.

“The pomp and ceremony of a royal visit shouldn’t be followed by the arrest of peaceful critics of the government,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Given that the British government requested this trip, it’s incumbent on them to call publicly for Sharif’s release.”

Sharif, whom authorities released pending trial, told Human Rights Watch that officers from the Cyber Crime Directorate called him in for questioning on the morning of November 13. He said they questioned him about his comments in the Associated Press article, after which a public prosecutor charged him with violating article 165 of Bahrain’s penal code.

Sharif denied that his comments incited hatred of the government system, Human Rights Watch added.

In 2011, Sharif was one of 21 opposition activists prosecuted for calling for democratic reforms and a republican form of government. They were found guilty of attempting to change the constitution and monarchical system “by force,” and Sharif spent four years and three months in prison.

He was released in June 2015, but spent another 13 months in jail after his arrest in July 2015 on charges that he “incited hatred toward the system of government” in a speech in which he repudiated violence and supported peaceful protest.

In a statement Sharif provided to Human Rights Watch on November 15, he described the government’s actions as “fear tactics … commonly used by undemocratic governments to prevent human rights defenders and political activists from defending thousands of voiceless people tortured, imprisoned, forced into exile or banned from travel.”

“Ebrahim Sharif is facing jail for criticizing a royal visit the British government asked for, yet London still can’t bring itself to call for the charges to be dropped,” Stork added.

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