A Bahraini human rights activist and prominent opponent of the government says he has come under intense pressure as Bahraini authorities go after his family, in what he described as an act of harassment and reprisal over his criticism of the kingdom's elite.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, who now leads the campaign group Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in exile in the United Kingdom, was stripped of his citizenship along with 71 others by the Bahraini government in 2015 after taking part in protests against the government during the Arab Spring unrest. Three family members of Alwadaei — his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and cousin — were arrested in 2017 on terrorism charges.
"The ongoing imprisonment of my family members is not going to be unheard," Alwadaei told VOA in a telephone interview. "They have taken away my citizenship and now they are going after my family. I will not rest until I see my family members released from prison."
Rights organizations, including the U.N.'s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, say these cases were based on fabricated charges.
Last week, dozens of British parliamentarians, NGO representatives, and lawyers issued a statement calling on the British government to speak up in defense of Alwadaei. They accused the Bahraini authorities of human rights violations against Alwadaei's family members, including arbitrary detention, unfair trial, ill-treatment and possible torture.
Bahraini officials say Alwadaei's mother-in-law, Hajar Mansoor Hassan Alwadaei, and brother-in-law, Sayed Nazar Alwadaei, planted a "fake bomb," resulting in a court ruling of three years imprisonment for each. His cousin, Mahmoud Marzouq Mansoor, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for terrorist-related charges involving arson and explosives.
Aya Majroub, a Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VOA Bahrain's authorities were detaining Alwadaei's relatives in response to his work at Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, and to stop dissent in the Sunni-ruled Arab country.
"The Bahraini authorities have used a litany of intimidation tactics to get Mr. Alwadaei to cease his effective international advocacy efforts, including subjecting him to torture, stripping him of his citizenship, and harassing his wife and infant child," Majroub said.
"The upholding of their sentences is a grave violation of justice and a further indictment of Bahrain's judiciary, which is being used as a political tool to persecute anyone who dares voice their criticism of the ruling family," Majroub added.
A member of Bahrain's criminal defense team, who has attended the trial of Alwadaei's relatives, told VOA the defendants were not given enough time to speak in court and evidence of torture could be seen on their faces. The lawyer spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity to evade prosecution by Bahraini authorities.
"The defendants were tortured and abused. We could see marks on their bodies, especially on their faces and hands when they appeared in court," the lawyer said.
VOA's attempts to reach Bahrain's officials, including officials at the Bahraini embassy in Washington, for comment were unsuccessful.
Rights organizations have repeatedly expressed alarm over Bahrain's counterterrorism measures, accusing authorities of using vague laws for mass terrorism convictions and citizenship revocation against those critical of the state.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Thursday she was "deeply concerned" about Bahrain's court proceedings after the High Criminal Court in Bahrain sentenced 139 people to prison, and revoked the citizenship of all but one, on terrorism charges last week.
"The U.N. Human Rights Office has long urged Bahrain to bring its overly broad counterterrorism and counter-extremism legislation in line with its international human rights obligations," Bachelet said in a statement.
"Tuesday's convictions give rise to serious concerns about the application of the law, particularly through a mass trial that reportedly lacked the procedural safeguards necessary to ensure a fair trial," she added.
Bahrain amended its citizenship law in 2014 following an uprising inspired by the Arab Spring. The new law gave the Ministry of Interior the power to convict and revoke the citizenship of anyone who "aids or is involved in the service of a hostile state" or who "causes harm to the interests of the kingdom or acts in a way that contravenes his duty of loyalty to it."
Amnesty International estimates that about 900 people have been stripped of their citizenship in Bahrain since 2012, a significantly high number in a country with a population estimated to be roughly 660,000 citizens.
The kingdom's authorities charge that their measures are to prevent Iran from fueling sectarian tension by mobilizing Shiite militias in the country.