(Beirut)– Bahraini authorities should provisionally release a human rights activist who faces charges over his tweet reporting about a wounded demonstrator.The activist, Sayed Yusuf al-Muhafadha, has been charged with “willfully disseminatingfalse news”amounting to “incitement to violence.”
In a letter to Attorney General Ali Fadhul Al Buainain, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that al-Muhafadha’s arrest on December 17, 2012, may have been motivated by objections to his work for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and that the circumstances of his case did not appear to justify pretrial detention. A judge has twice rejected requests from al-Muhafadha’s attorney to release him provisionally. Al-Muhafadha had been held for 12 days in November after being arrested while monitoring an anti-government protest but was released without charge.
“Detaining the activist Sayed Yusuf al-Muhafadha twice in as many months raises serious concerns that Bahraini authorities are trying to silence people monitoring human rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If authorities pursue this questionable case, al-Muhafadha should be released pending trial.”
Security forces in December arrested al-Muhafadha, acting vice president of the human rights group, while he was monitoring a demonstration in Manama to commemorate protester deaths in 1994. On December 18 the public prosecutor accused him of posting on his Twitter account a photograph showing a leg with apparent multiple birdshot pellet injuriesand stating in English: “Ican confirm one shoutgun [sic] injury now in
#Manama.” The prosecutor placed him in detention for one week, pending investigation. On December 25 his detention was renewed for another 15 days.
The photograph that appears to be the basis for the charges against al-Muhafadha was widely circulated in Bahrain prior to his arrest, Human Rights Watch said. At about 9:15 p.m. on December 14, security forces had used force to disperse a group of about 30 protesters in the Al-Makharqa neighborhood of Manama. At that demonstration a protester was shot in the leg and a photograph of his wounded leg was posted that day on several online forums as well as al-Muhafadha’s Twitter account. On December 17, the same picture was posted on Bahrain Online, a popular online forum, with an Arabic caption that read: “picture of the injury of one of the youth in Manama with shotgun.”
The same photo appeared again on al-Muhafadha’s Twitter post on December 17 while he was monitoring a demonstration at which security forces did not open fire.
On December 20 the official Bahrain News Agency quoted the deputy attorney general, Mohammed Salah, as saying that the photo posted on December 17 “was contrary to the truth” and that it “resulted in protests and riots that disrupted security and order on the same day.”
Under article 168 of Bahrain’s Penal Code, as amended in October, anyone who willfully disseminates false news knowing that it might result in harm to national security or the public order or safety faces up to two years in prison and a fine of 200 dinars (US$525 ). The law says that the dissemination of the false news must amount to incitement to violence, with a direct link to its occurrence or to the probability of its occurrence.
The information publicly available does not suggest that al-Muhafadha willfully provided false news with the intent of harming public order or safety, or that incited violence, Human Rights Watch said.
Security forces had also arrested al-Muhafadha on November 2 in al-Diraz, west of Manama, and accused him of participating in an “illegal gathering.” On that occasion al-Muhafadha was arrested as he tried to photograph an injured protester at a demonstration. Earlier in the day he had tweeted photos of security forces firing teargas toward protesters in the village of Bilad al-Qadeem.
Rights defenders have faced arrest and prosecution for their peaceful human rights activities in Bahrain, Human Rights Watch said. On August 16 a criminal court sentenced Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, to three years in prison for organizing and participating in three demonstrations between January and March. On December 11 the Court of Appeal upheld the guilty verdict on most of the charges but reduced his sentence to two years.
Bahrain is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression. While international law permits restrictions on speech that incites violence, they must be enshrined in law, strictly necessary for reasons of national security or public order, and proportionate.
International human rights law provides that defendants should be released pending trial unless there is a likelihood that they will abscond, destroy evidence, or influence witnesses.
The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1999, states that everyone has the right “freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Since April 2011 Bahraini authorities have severely restricted Human Rights Watch’s access to the country to report on rights violations, permitting only two very brief visits in November 2011 and April 2012.