Global Freedom of Expression


Arrest of Inter-Faith Activist and Columbia Global Freedom of Expression expert Maytham Al Salman

New York, 10 August 2015 – Columbia Global Freedom of Expression urges the Bahrain Government to drop, immediately and unconditionally, all charges and the travel ban imposed against Sheikh Maytham Al Salman, inter-faith and tolerance activist and an adviser to Columbia Global Freedom of Expression. The Bahrain Government must abide by international human rights law, and respect Maytham Al Salman’s right to freedom of expression.

Sheikh Maytham Al Salman was detained early Saturday morning, 8 August 2015, at Manama international airport as he was returning from abroad. He was issued with an arrest warrant charging him with “inciting hatred against the regime”. Once detained, he was permitted to inform his family, by telephone, that he was being held at the Criminal Investigation Division, Economic Crimes Unit. However, in contravention of his human rights, he was denied access to a lawyer. Pending further legal procedures, Sheikh Maytham was released some 12 hours later.

Article 165 of the Bahrain prohibits “inciting others to develop hatred or hostility towards the system of government.” It is an offence punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. Such charges are most widely used against human rights activists and media workers involved in promoting human rights in Bahrain or in documenting cases of human rights abuse. They have also been issued against perceived opponents to the Bahrain regime.

An internationally respected inter-faith leader, Sheikh Maytham Al Salman has been working with Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression since April 2015, advising the initiative on its global jurisprudence and global tolerance projects. He is well recognized for his work on building tolerant societies, and on countering incitement to violence and discrimination in accordance with international human rights standards, in particular respect for freedom of expression as per Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The arrest of Sheik Maytham Al Salman is thought to be linked to his recent tweets which had been subsequently published by the newspaper, Al Wasat, which was itself closed down by the Bahrain authorities on Thursday 6 August 2015 (it was allowed to resume publishing on Sunday August 9).

The tweets were written in Arabic. They included the following statements: “National responsibility calls on us to claim the consolidation of equal citizenship, to fight against all forms of discrimination and to denounce violence and extremism in Bahrain”. “Pejorative epithets against certain groups found on some media and religious platforms perpetuate hostility in Bahrain. Anyone hostile to Sunnis because they are Sunni, or Shiites because they are Shiite cannot make any claim to good citizenship, which is grounded on civil coexistence and the acceptance of diversity.” Maytham Al Salman also stated that “monitoring speech and religious media platforms that call for hatred against certain groups is of extreme importance to study the causes of the perpetration of racism in Bahrain” and that “the takfirist discourse of certain religious platforms is now one of the main sources of incitement to hatred against particular religious groups” and that “Seriously resisting national division and the promotion of hatred among citizens constitutes both a national and a religious duty. And a must for Bahrain and the region.”

International Standard and Bahrain Penal Code:
The criminalization of incitement to “hatred against the regime” is problematic from an international law point of view. Since the provisions restrict the right to freedom of expression, it should still meet the thresholds contained within Articles 19 and 20 of the ICCP; namely that they must be “provided by law”, meet legitimate aim expressly enumerated in Article 19 para 3, and be proportionate to the protected aims.

The term “hatred against the regime” is unclear and broad in scope. It can thus be arbitrarily interpreted, is opened to abuse and may be used to restrict legitimate expression including critique of the government. The restriction is also not mandated under the international law. In contrast to incitement to racial, ethnic and religious hatred, which Bahrain is obliged to prohibit under Article 20 (2) of the ICCPR, prohibition of incitement to “hatred against the regime” is not mandated by international law. The restrictions it imposes on freedom of expression are neither necessary nor proportionate under international human rights law.

In 2012, the UPR working group made 16 recommendations for Bahrain to bring its national legislation in-line with international standards on freedom of expression and 4 recommendations specifically urging amendments to the penal code to guarantee that freedom.¹ In response to the UPR recommendations², Bahrain agreed to amend Article 169 of the Penal Code to provide that: “restrictions defined in this or any other law on the freedom of expressions shall be construed as limited to those which are compatible with the value of a democratic society. The exercise of the freedom of expression can only be punished through restrictions that are so limited .”

The amendment is insufficient to cover the three part test required by Article 19 of the ICCPR. Further, Article 165 of the Bahrain Penal Code is in contradiction to the (imperfect) Article 169 amendment: its lack of clarity on the definition of incitement of hatred poses a threat to legitimate criticism of the government, which is a foundation of democratic society.

The arrest of Maytham Al Salman well demonstrates the dangers posed by Article 165 to the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression in Bahrain. The expressions that are allegedly at the heart of the case against him invoked peaceful coexistence, non-discrimination and tolerance – all of which are necessary to a democratic society. Indeed, restrictions imposed on these and similar expressions pose the gravest threats to democracy, and national security.

Columbia Global Freedom of Expression was launched in 2014 by Columbia University President Bollinger to advance understanding of the international and national norms and institutions that best protect the free flow of information and expression in an inter-connected global community with major common challenges to address. To achieve its mission, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression undertakes and commissions research and policy projects, organizes events and conferences, and participates in and contributes to global debates on the protection of freedom of expression and information in the 21st century.