Grave concern over academic given 10 years in jail

Scholars at Risk along with the Committee of Concerned Scientists and three other human rights organisations have issued a joint statement expressing grave concern over the case of Bahraini academic and activist Khalil Al-Halwachi, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in March, in apparent retaliation for his peaceful expressive and associative activity.

Scholars at Risk said the case is an attempt to silence those who ask difficult questions, a key role of academics.

In the joint statement issued on 7 June the partner organisations have urged the Bahraini authorities to release Professor Al-Halwachi and drop any charges against him. Pending this, they are calling on authorities to ensure appropriate medical care, humane treatment and due process rights throughout his appeal proceedings.

They said that on 3 September 2014 Bahraini security forces raided Al-Halwachi’s home, arrested him, and took him to the Criminal Investigation Directorate or CID, where he was interrogated regarding his previous political affiliations. During these interrogations, CID officials reportedly tortured and coerced him into providing a false confession.

According to Al-Halwachi’s daughter, who is deputy chairperson of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights, Al-Halwachi was forced to stand for long periods of time, barred from using the toilet, and kept in solitary confinement in a low-temperature cell without adequate clothing. During interrogations with authorities, he was reportedly forced to sign a confession statement blindfolded.

Al-Halwachi was held in pre-trial detention at Dry Dock Detention Center until his first hearing on 22 March 2015. He refused to attend the hearing in protest, but the court proceeded in charging him with alleged possession of a weapon, which relates to a weapon that authorities allegedly found during the September 2014 raid on his home. Al-Halwachi denies the allegation, and claims that the evidence was fabricated.

A second charge of ‘insulting the judiciary’ was also brought against him in connection with due process concerns he raised during a May 2016 court hearing. Al-Halwachi has experienced more than 20 trial postponements and has been denied regular access to his lawyer throughout court proceedings.

On 23 March 2017, Bahrain’s Fifth High Criminal Court convicted Al-Halwachi of the two charges and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Deeply concerned by the verdict ruling

Scholars at Risk and its partner organisations said they are deeply concerned by the verdict ruling, the “arbitrary and apparently retaliatory nature of the charges in response to Al-Halwachi’s peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association” and the apparent lack of due process.

They reported that following the verdict ruling, Al-Halwachi was taken to Jau Prison where he continues to be denied medication and access to proper medical treatment despite experiencing several increasing medical complications, including from a stroke he suffered in September 2016, blood clots, and, more recently, a hernia.

On 11 May 2017, Professor Al-Halwachi and fellow inmates at Jau Prison were scheduled to attend appeal hearings. While several inmates were permitted to attend their hearings, Al-Halwachi was kept in a police vehicle until the end of the day’s hearings. The court has postponed his appeal hearing until 18 September 2017.

In response to the conviction and sentencing, Fatima Al-Halwachi, said: “Fifty-nine years old, 994 days imprisoned, 24 trials, planted evidence, and no connection whatsoever to the case. Yet, he was sentenced to 10 years. Why? For political and sectarian reasons, and to silence those who choose and have the potential to speak up for human rights and democracy in Bahrain.

“The government feared my father because he was a good teacher beloved by everyone he taught. Free my father – he’s done nothing but good for his community.”

Scholars at Risk and its partner organisations said that “absent of any information that may clarify these events or our understanding, the facts suggest that Professor Al-Halwachi was convicted and sentenced as a result of non-violent expressive and associative activity, and has suffered violations of his right to due process, fair trial, humane treatment and medical care – conduct and rights that are expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is party.

“This raises not only serious concerns for Professor Al-Halwachi’s well-being, but for the ability of scholars, activists and other members of civil society in Bahrain to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association.”

Scholars at Risk told University World News that Al-Halwachi taught courses in mathematics and conducted workshops for university students and faculty in Bahrain, including at the University of Sunderland's Micro Center Institute in Bahrain. He has previously taught at the Svenska Interkulturella Skolan, in Sweden, before he returned to Bahrain in 2001.

He was a founding member of the Islamic Action Society or Amal, an opposition party in Bahrain that called for democratic reforms and advocated for human rights, and which was forced to dissolve by the authorities in 2012, allegedly for "grave breaches of the provisions of Bahrain’s constitution and laws”. He has been detained once before, in 2011, around the time of the Arab Spring movements, in connection with his peaceful activism and links to Amal.

The charges do not appear to relate to his academic work, but rather to his former affiliation with Amal, and for his related public advocacy for human rights and democratic reforms in Bahrain.

But Clare Robinson, advocacy director at Scholars at Risk said Al-Halwachi’s case is important for academic freedom.

“Members of higher education communities must be free to peacefully exercise their right to think, share and question ideas, whether those ideas relate directly to their academic field or to issues of wide public concern – such as, in Al-Halwachi’s case, human rights and democracy in Bahrain.

“His conviction and sentencing causes undue harm to Al-Halwachi’s family. Beyond this, it sends a message to all members of Bahrain civil society that critical inquiry and dissent carry heavy consequences,” she told University World News.

“Scholars at Risk urges Bahraini authorities to reaffirm their commitment to academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression and association by releasing Professor Al-Halwachi to his family. We hope that the joint statement helps to demonstrate how this one case is an attempt to silence those in Bahrain who dare to ask the most difficult questions.”