VATICAN CITY – Families of death row inmates in Bahrain appealed to Pope Francis on Monday to speak out against capital punishment and defend political prisoners during his trip to the Gulf state this week.
The families made their appeal in an open letter released by the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), which called on the pope to speak out on what the group says are human rights abuses, including the imprisonment of pro-democracy dissidents, during his Nov. 3 to 6 trip.
Bahrain has imprisoned thousands of protesters, journalists and activists – some in mass trials – since an anti-government uprising in 2011. It says it prosecutes in accordance with international law those who commit crimes.
“Our family members remain behind bars and at risk of execution despite the clear injustice of their convictions. Many of them were targeted because they took part in pro-democracy protests during the ‘Arab Spring’,” said the letter, written by families of 12 death row inmates.
“During your visit to Bahrain, we hope you can repeat your call to abolish the death penalty and for the sentences of our family members to be commuted,” it said.
Bahrain re-introduced the death penalty in 2017 after a moratorium.
In 2018, the Roman Catholic Church formally changed its teaching to declare the death penalty morally inadmissible and the pope has made many appeals for it to be banned worldwide.
BIRD, a non-profit group, also released an open letter to the pope from Ali Al-Hajee, who defined himself as a “prisoner of conscience” and who is close to completing a 10-year sentence which he said was connected to his participation in a pro-democracy demonstration.
“I invite you, in the name of humanity, to urge the King of Bahrain to abide by peace and to release me and all Bahraini political prisoners,” Al-Hajee’s letter said.
Bahrain rejects criticism from the United Nations and others over conduct of trials and detention conditions. Authorities say its legal and judicial system continues to be reformed.
A Bahrain government spokesperson, in response to a Reuters request for comment, said in a statement that “no individual in the Kingdom is arrested or in custody because of their beliefs” and that the constitution protects freedom of expression.
“However, in cases where individuals incite, promote, or glorify violence or hatred, there is a duty to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute such individuals,” the spokesperson said, adding the government has “zero-tolerance towards mistreatment of any kind”.
US-allied Bahrain was the only Gulf state to experience mass “Arab Spring” upheaval. The Sunni Muslim monarchy used force to suppress protests, led mostly by the Shi’ite Muslim community, and cracked down on sporadic unrest and dissent later.
At a briefing last week, Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni was asked if the pope would speak about human rights while in Bahrain, given criticism by the opposition and international rights groups of the state’s treatment of the Shi’ite majority.
“I won’t anticipate anything on what the pope will be saying in the next few days. The position of the Holy See and of the pope concerning religious freedom and liberty is clear and is known,” he said.
The Bahrain government spokesperson said the state protects freedom of religion and worship, and “does not tolerate discrimination, persecution or the promotion of division based on ethnicity, culture or faith”.
The pope is visiting Bahrain for the closing ceremony of “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence” and to meet members of the Catholic community.
He will meet King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and stay in the royal compound because there is no Vatican embassy in Bahrain.
In 2019, Francis visited the United Arab Emirates, the first pontiff to visit the Arabian peninsula and say a Mass there.
Bahrain is about 70% Muslim and, unlike Saudi Arabia, allows the small Christian community – mostly foreign workers – to practice their faith publicly in two churches there. – Reuters