Nobody saw it coming. In a shocking new blow to freedom of expression last week a Bahraini appeals court more than doubled the prison sentence against the leader of the country’s largest opposition group, al-Wefaq, increasing his term from four to nine years for peacefully criticizing the government in his speeches.
With this move, Bahrain’s authorities have shattered the illusion that human rights and reform feature anywhere on their current agenda.
The verdict against Sheikh ‘Ali Salman – a prominent opposition leader with a large Shi’a following – is a clear indicator of Bahrain’s zero tolerance policy for peaceful dissent. It also provides strong evidence of what international human rights organizations already suspected: that the authorities in Bahrain no longer feel the need to show they care about what the international community thinks of their deteriorating human rights record.
Bahrain’s authorities have shattered the illusion that human rights and reform feature anywhere on their current agenda.Ariel Plotkin
The verdict drew condemnation from a host of UN experts and the US government who both called for the release of Sheikh ‘Ali Salman. This stands in stark contrast with the muted response from the UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who simply noted that there is “a further stage in the legal process”, exposing the British government’s continuing hypocrisy when it comes to Bahrain. The UK, which is building a major naval base in Bahrain, has repeatedly made excuses for Bahrain’s leaders, repeating false claims that the tiny Gulf Kingdom is “making progress” on reforms.
It has been almost five years since the King accepted the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was established to investigate the heavy-handed crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011. Bahrain has had nearly five years to show the world that it has genuinely made progress towards respecting and promoting human rights; that it has learnt from its grave mistakes of the past and can serve as an example to other states in the Middle East.
Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the Chair of BICI, was inaccurately quoted in an article by the Bahrain News Agency in May as saying that all BICI recommendations had been fully implemented. Following this, the Bahraini authorities patted themselves on the back thanking the commissioners for their “dedicated” and “diligent” work to achieve their objectives. The statement was even publicly welcomed by the British Ambassador to Bahrain. However, last Saturday, Bassiouni refuted the claims made in the article emphasizing that only 10 of the recommendations had been “substantially implemented” and 16 “partially”.
Just how much more time is the world expected to give Bahrain to reform? Many suffering repression in the country tell us that time has run out and that there is no more hope to hold onto.
Just how much more time is the world expected to give Bahrain to reform?Ariel Plotkin
Since the national dialogue, set up to promote discussion across Bahrain’s political spectrum, stalled in 2014, with al-Wefaq boycotting the parliamentary and municipal elections in November that year, the opposition has become the main target for the authorities. Sheikh ‘Ali Salman’s arrest, which came just a month later, was clearly politically motivated.
He joined fellow opposition leaders Fadhel Abbas Mahdi Mohamed of al-Wahdawi party, Ebrahim Sharif of al-Waad party and other peaceful opponents behind bars, including the “Bahrain 13”, a group of activists convicted in 2011, some of whom are serving life sentences.
Bahrain has been talking about national dialogue since 2011, and it is clear that its allies the UK and USA have been pushing for this. But who are the authorities going to have a dialogue with if all of the country’s key political leaders are behind bars?
The nine-year jail sentence against Sheikh ‘Ali Salman, a peaceful critic who should not have spent a single day in prison, makes one thing painfully clear. That no matter how strongly Bahrain – and its ally the UK – push the image that Bahrain is on track towards human rights reform, the reality shows a different story.
It is not just political figures that have been targeted by the authorities. Punishment for peaceful dissent has ranged from imprisonment to travel bans, nationality revocation and more recently, expulsion from the country. Those who want to air their discontent peacefully face unrelenting obstacles and persecution.
Public demonstrations have been banned in the capital Manama since 2013. Protests outside the city are routinely met with tear gas and shotgun pellets.
Unless Bahrain’s authorities urgently end this escalating crackdown there are likely to be more dark days aheadAriel Plotkin
Bahraini activists have turned to social media to express their views, but increasingly, tweeting or even re-tweeting can be a ticket to prison. Virtually no platform is left for the Bahraini people to peacefully express their opinions.
Sadly, Bahrain’s repression has driven several activists to leave the country to seek asylum in Europe and some still in the country are now self-censoring, as almost anything they say can be used by the authorities to prosecute them, just like Sheikh ‘Ali Salman.
The repercussions of Sheikh ‘Ali Salman’s increased prison sentence remain to be seen but unless Bahrain’s authorities urgently end this escalating crackdown there are likely to be more dark days ahead. And scores of jailed peaceful activists and opposition leaders like Sheikh ‘Ali Salman will continue to pay the price.