On Sunday November 4th, Bahrain sentenced three senior members of an opposition movement, Al-Wefaq, to life in prison for alleged cooperation with Qatar. According to Al Jazeera, the head of Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, and his fellow group members Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali al-Aswad were said to be working with Qatari intelligence to collect information to use against the Bahraini government and to eventually overthrow it. According to a statement by the public prosecutor, they were sentenced for “acts of hostility” against Bahrain and “communicating with Qatari officials to overthrow constitutional order.” The New York Times added that “the three faced charges of disclosing sensitive information to Qatar that could harm Bahrain’s security in exchange for financial compensation.” According to the New York Times, the “state-run news agency said prosecutors had presented recorded phone conversations between Sheikh Salman and Qatar’s former prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani.”
Sima Watling, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Bahrain, told Al Jazeera that the verdict was “absurd.” She also claimed that the phone conversations that Salman had with Qatar’s prime minister at the time were to urge “Doha to mediate in Bahrain’s political crisis.” Watling said, “the new charges are absurd […] It appears to be linked to the Qatar crisis and the Bahraini authorities are going forward with their crush on dissent. Any opposition or opposing voice is being crushed.” Amnesty International also stated, “this verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent,” adding that, “Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.” In response to the court’s ruling on Sunday, Brian Dooley, a senior adviser at Human Rights First, stated that the ruling “confirms there is now no tolerance for any dissent in Bahrain,” the Associated Press reported. Lastly, Iran condemned Bahrain’s courts ruling. Bahram Qasemi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “these verdicts leave no doubt for public opinion and the international community that Bahrain is not looking for reform but has decided to intensify the repression.”
According to the New York Times, Sheikh Salman has been a target of the Bahraini kingdom for a while. In 1994, he was arrested and, according to the United Nations, “allegedly tortured and detained for months without trial before being deported and forced to live in exile for more than 15 years.” In addition, Sheikh Salman is currently serving a four-year sentence in a separate case for supposedly fueling hostility between the Shia and Sunni groups in Bahrain, according to the New York Times. Al-Wefaq was also forced to shut down in 2016, along with another opposition group, the National Democratic Action Society (WAAD), due to a kingdom-wide crackdown on opposition groups and dissent. Both Al-Wefaq and WAAD were accused of helping to foster violence and terrorism. Al-Wefaq has been most concerned with the Shia Muslims who make up the majority of Bahrain yet are not represented by the Sunni Kingdom. According to Al Jazeera, Bahrain has struggled with much unrest since 2011, when Shias were protesting the Sunni-rule and were demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister. Since then, opposition groups have been banned and their dissidents were imprisoned and many “stripped of their nationality.” In addition, members of these opposition groups were banned from running for legislative positions.
Sunday’s ruling is an extension of the oppression that the Shia majority is facing at the hands of Sunni rule. Sentencing Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali al-Aswad to life in prison is a human rights violation and must be stopped. By silencing the voices of the majority, the Bahraini kingdom is creating conflict among Sunni and Shia Bahrainis which will only serve to exacerbate tensions in the country. It is important that Bahrain’s courts revoke the sentences and that the Bahraini government implements the necessary social and political reforms to restore rights to its Shia population. To do so, it is essential that the international community puts pressure on the Bahraini kingdom and urges them to implement these reforms as soon as possible. In addition, other nations and political leaders should follow Iran’s lead in condemning the sentencing of the three Al-Wefaq members and demand its reversal.
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