(New York, June 2, 2005) — The Bahraini government should drop charges against a leading women’s rights activist who goes on trial Saturday for publicly criticizing family court judges, Human Rights Watch said today. If convicted, Ghada Jamsheer faces up to 15 years in prison.
She faces three trials for publicly criticizing family court judges; the first is scheduled to begin in the capital Manama on June 4. She was indicted earlier this year before the High Criminal Court for three incidents of alleged “slander.” She is accused of slander on the basis of calling family court judges in Bahrain “corrupt, biased, and unqualified” and calling a specific judge “rude and unfair.” She is also being criminally charged by the ex-husband of a divorced woman whose case was adopted by the Women’s Petition Committee. Her charges are based in part on provisions of the Penal Code of 1976 which have been largely condemned for giving the government wide latitude to suppress public criticism.
“Ghada Jamsheer is being punished for exposing the injustice that women face in the courtroom,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, Women’s Rights director at Human Rights Watch. “These lawsuits are a blatant attempt to silence her and undermine the reform efforts she spearheads.”
Two separate shari’a (Islamic law) based family courts exist for Sunni and Shia Muslims in Bahrain. These courts hear personal status cases, including marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance cases. There are no written personal status laws in Bahrain. The uncodified nature of these laws gives judges the authority to render judgments according to their own reading of Islamic jurisprudence. Judges presiding over these courts are generally conservative religious scholars with limited formal legal training. Many of them are unapologetically adverse to women’s equality and persistently favor men in their rulings.
Since 2001, the Women’s Petition Committee has documented hundreds of cases in which these judges misinterpret religious jurisprudence and deny Bahraini women their rights arbitrarily. For example, several judges have denied women custody of their children simply because they work or are pursuing higher education.
Ghada Jamsheer has presented dozens of complaints to the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the King describing the mishandling of cases by specific judges. While the government has promised a codified family law granting divorced woman presumptive custody of their children, among other things, little action has been taken. The committee charged with this task has not consulted with the Women’s Petition Committee or any other nongovernmental activists working in this area.
“Rather than putting one of Bahrain’s most committed activists on trial, the government should work with Ghada Jamsheer to immediately address the issues that her organization has brought to light,” said Jefferson.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Bahraini government to drop the charges against Ghada Jamsheer immediately. Bahrain should also eliminate criminal penalties for slander in cases that do not involve direct and immediate incitement to acts of violence or discrimination, Human Rights Watch said.