RIFFA (Dispatches) – Relatives of Bahraini political prisoners have welcomed Pope Francis’ call for the death penalty to be repealed and human rights assured in the kingdom where the opposition accuses the ruling family of discriminating against the Shia-majority population.
But they also said they hoped the pontiff would use the remainder of his 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 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 demand the immediate release of all political prisoners and I hope that this will happen during the upcoming days.”
The Pope’s visit comes as Bahraini rights activists have raised concerns that the ruling Al Khalifah regime would take advantage of the trip to showcase 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.
Maryam Alkhawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist and daughter of Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a prominent human rights defender imprisoned since 2011, said that she and others had called on the Pope to cancel his visit to Bahrain or refuse to shake hands with the kingdom’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, but neither of them 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 discrimination against the Shia population in Bahrain,” Alkhawaja said.
The rights activist also said she believed the regime’s plan to use the Pope’s trip as a publicity stunt had backfired, adding, “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.