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Bahrain activists urge Pope to meet with prisoners and their families

Relatives of political prisoners said they welcomed the pontiff's call for the government to halt the death penalty and hope he will push further during his final days in kingdom
Pope Francis (L) addresses Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa during the closing ceremony for the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue at Sakhir Royal Palace on 4 November 2022 (AFP)

Relatives of Bahraini political prisoners have welcomed Pope Francis' call for the death penalty to be repealed and human rights assured in the kingdom where the opposition accuses the Sunni ruling family of discriminating against the Shia-majority population.

But they also said they hoped the pontiff would use the remainder of his historic four-day visit to further highlight the plight of the inmates, including through visiting families of death row inmates and even prisoners themselves.

'There is an urgent need for the Pope to continue pressuring towards ending human rights violations'

- Ali Mushaima, Bahraini activist

"There is an urgent need for the Pope to continue pressuring towards ending human rights violations," Ali Mushaima, Bahraini human rights activist and son of an imprisoned Bahraini opposition leader Hasan Mushaima, told Middle East Eye on Friday. 

"I previously requested the Pope meet with my father in prison and to demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and I hope that this will happen during the upcoming days."

On Thursday, with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa seated next to him in Sahkir Royal Palace, Francis began his visit with an address in which he called for Bahrain's constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, to be put into practice.

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Doing this, he said, would ensure "that equal dignity and equal opportunities will be concretely recognised for each group and for every individual; that no forms of discrimination exist and that fundamental human rights are not violated but promoted".

He also told the audience which included members of the royal family and government officials: "I think in the first place of the right to life, of the need to guarantee that right always, including for those being punished, whose lives should not be taken."

'Release me, reunite me'

Francis, who is the first pontiff to visit Bahrain, is attending a forum focused on religious coexistence. His visit comes after the opening in December 2021 of the largest Catholic church in the Gulf, Our Lady of Arabia, in the Bahraini municipality of Awali.

Bahraini activists and prisoners' relatives raised concerns with his office that the government would use the trip to project an image of religious coexistence even while standing accused of systematic persecution of the Shia majority in the country, including many of the political prisoners. They lobbied for him to take action.

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Maryam Alkhawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist and daughter of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a prominent human rights defender imprisoned since 2011, said she and others had called for the Pope to cancel his visit or, barring that, refuse to shake hands with the king, neither of which came to pass.

"However, we are very happy to see that he took this as an opportunity to raise human rights concerns including the death penalty and the sectarian discrimination against the Shia population in Bahrain," she told MEE.

She said she believed the government's plan to use the Pope's trip as a PR stunt had backfired: "The visit has worked against them as it has brought further attention to the disastrous human rights situation in the country."

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), greeted the Pope's comments as "a historic moment" and said he hoped Francis would meet with the families of death row inmates before he leaves the kingdom.

A report released by Bird and Human Rights Watch last month documented the case of eight men currently on death row in the kingdom, and found that they had been sentenced without any physical evidence, but solely or in large part on coerced confessions extracted through torture and ill-treatment.

Mohamed Ramadan, one of those named in the report who has long maintained his innocence and says he was tortured into confessing, reportedly pleaded with the Pope in a letter sent ahead of his visit to “ask the king of Bahrain to release me and reunite me with my family and children”.

Ramadan has recently accused prison authorities of refusing to provide him with adequate medical treatment.

His wife, Zainab Ibrahim, tweeted on Thursday that she appreciated the Pope's call for the end of the death penalty. "Nine harsh years have passed. My children and I have been waiting for the return of my husband," she wrote.

The Pope is scheduled to attend a holy mass at the Bahraini National Stadium on Saturday before meeting with young people followed by a prayer meeting on Sunday before his return to Rome.

MEE asked the Vatican press office whether he planned to meet with the families of death row inmates, but did not receive a response before publication.

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