Meet Bahrain's Awful Judges

In a Bahrain court yesterday Judge Ebrahim Al Zayed presided over a brief, few-minute hearing in the case of political dissident Khalil AlHalwachi, arrested two years ago on fabricated charges of various terrorism offenses, including the possession of a rifle. He's on trial with 16 others. The case was adjourned yesterday with a verdict now set for October 20.

It's a familiar story in Bahrain, where a single family runs a totalitarian regime and the judiciary plays an important role in intimidating and silencing opposition figures and human rights activists.

Peaceful dissidents are framed and sentenced to long terms in jail because Washington's allies running the government fear criticism of their repression. 

AlHalwachi says he was mistreated in custody, interrogated without his lawyer present, and coerced into signing a false confession while he was blindfolded. He has been in poor health for some months now and is to remain in custody at least until the verdict.

Ebrahim Al Zayed is one of the judges notorious for unfair, absurd verdicts. He also confirmed the conviction and jail sentence against human rights defender Nabeel Rajab in a December 2012 appeal court hearing, and is perhaps most famous for acquitting in July 2013 Mubarak Bin Howail and Norah bint Ebrahim Al Khalifa, charged by the public prosecutor with torturing medics. 

Locals activists report he's also the lead judge in the case against senior Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, targeted as part of the government's latest attacks on leading Shia figures suspected of disloyalty to the ruling family. "He's known as a soft-spoken man but represents the interests of the National Security Agency in court," a Bahraini lawyer whose name I'm not using for safety reasons told me.

Then there is Judge Ali Al Dharani, appointed head of the Fourth Criminal Court in August 2014, where he has distinguished himself with a series of stunning judicial decisions. According to the State News agency the BNA he has a masters degree from the private Kingdom University in Bahrain with a thesis on "Constitutionality of Laws." It was Judge Al Dhahrani who sentenced opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman to four years in jail in June 2015 after he peacefully criticized the government. In January, following disturbances at notorious and overcrowded Jaw Prison in March 2015, Al Dhahrani convicted and sentenced 57 inmates to a further 15 years in jail.

These are only two of Bahrain's abusive judges. A corrupt judiciary has long been recognized as a major problem. Major reforms are needed.   The 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), ordered by the king of Bahrain in response to his government's violent repression of widespread protests early that year, issued recommendations for how state institutions should be overhauled. These included recommendation 1722 f. To train the judiciary and prosecutorial personnel on the need to ensure that their activities contribute to the prevention and eradication of torture and ill-treatment.   At a ceremony in May this year to mark what the BNA called the full implementation of the BICI reforms, Minister for Justice Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa highlighted "the amendments of the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Penal Code, the training of judges, prosecutors, law enforcers and lawyers..."   The State Department's assessment of how BICI has been implemented, released the following month, stated that on 1722 (f),"The Government of Bahrain reported that, by 2013, at least two-thirds of the judiciary had received training in protecting human rights in criminal procedures during regular programs and at foundations, including at the [Italian-based] International Institute for Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences and the American Bar Association provided technical capacity building and general human rights training for lawyers, prosecutors and judges."   Despite the trumpeted training programs, it's hard to see how a new culture of respecting human rights has taken hold in Bahrain's judiciary. Regular reports of sham trials and convictions on the basis of tortured confessions continue to emerge.

Washington should look carefully at what happens in the AlHalwachi trial on October 20, track which judges issue verdicts that punish peaceful dissent, and consider imposing visa bans on them and other officials linked to human rights abuses.