On 20 June 2016, the Government of Bahrain revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim. Shortly following the announcement of the citizenship revocation, the government claimed that Sheikh Isa Qassim had been illegally collecting funds. Bahraini courts have postponed trial dates on Sheikh Isa Qassim’s case a number of times. Authorities have set the next trial date for 23 November 2016.
Since the announcement of Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship revocation, a significant number of Bahrainis have taken to the streets surrounding Sheikh Isa Qassim’s home in Diraz to participate in a peaceful sit-in. Many of these Bahrainis are participating in the sit-in to show solidarity with Sheikh Isa Qassim and protect him from the government trying to deport him from the country. The Diraz sit-in has now been ongoing for more than four months.
The charge for which courts are trying Sheikh Isa Qassim is money-laundering, which is in relation to the Shia-specific practice of khums. Khums is an annual payment made by Shia Muslims to Shia clerics for the distribution of money to those in the community who are most in need. The Bahraini government’s action of charging Sheikh Isa Qassim for a Shia-specific practice is part of a broader campaign by the government.
Since June 2016, Bahraini authorities have summoned more than 50 Shia clerics and religious figures. The judicial harassment of religious figures has resulted in several charges of “illegal gathering” and “inciting hatred” for participation in the Diraz sit-in. Sheikh Maytham al-Salman, a prominent inter-faith leader and member of the Bahrain Human Rights Observatory, is one of the religious clerics charged with illegal gathering. Authorities have since released him on bail, however he remains on travel ban to prevent his participation in international human rights-related work.
The US State Department in June 2016 issued a statement on Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship revocation. In a press statement by Department Spokesperson John Kirby, the US noted that they are “alarmed by the Government of Bahrain’s decision to revoke the citizenship of… Sheikh Isa Qassim.” Kirby further stated that the citizenship revocation was just the latest action in a concerning trend of moves by Bahraini authorities to “further divert Bahrainis from the path of reform and reconciliation.”
In August 2016, a group of United Nations human rights experts called on the Government of Bahrain to stop the ongoing persecution of Shia religious leaders. The UN Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, freedom of religion or belief, and the situation of human rights defenders along with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention emphasized the increase in arrests, detentions, summons, interrogations, and criminal charges Bahraini authorities have brought against Shia individuals.
“We are calling on the Government of Bahrain to stop such arbitrary arrests or summons and release all those who have been detained for exercising their rights,” said the human rights experts. The UN experts further stated that “the Government should not resort to repressive measures.”
During Sheikh Isa Qassim’s trial later this month, the Government of Bahrain can begin to approach a path of reform by dropping all charges against him that are related to Shia religious practices and guarantee the reinstatement of his citizenship. Further, Bahraini officials must abide by international human rights norms and stop the targeted harassment of Shia religious figures.