Bahraini courts postpone the trial of Sheikh Isa Qassim

The Government of Bahrain on Monday, 27 February, postponed the trial of Sheikh Isa Qassim. The courts set the next court date for Sheikh Isa on 14 March 2017.

Sheikh Isa Qassim is the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia population. On 20 June 2016, the Government of Bahrain announced the citizenship revocation of Sheikh Isa Qassim and threatened his deportation. Bahraini courts accused Sheikh Isa Qassim of ‘money laundering.’ The charge is related to the Shia-specific practice of khums, a donation made to clerics who then redistribute it to the community for charitable causes. Bahraini officials alleged that Sheikh Isa Qassim and other clerics have illegally received foreign funding and have been “withdrawing, depositing, purchasing, allocating, and distributing the amounts in a way that shows that their sources are licit, contrary to the facts/reality.” The Public Prosecution has denied that the charges relate to khums.

Since the government’s announcement of Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship revocation and possible deportation, Bahrainis have surround his residence in Diraz.  The town has since been the center of a peaceful sit-in; the protest has been ongoing for more than eight months. Since June 2016, human rights organizations have documented the Bahraini government’s harassment, summons, detention, or arrest  of more than 70 Shia clerics for participating in the sit-in. Nine are currently serving prison sentences for speech and assembly-related charges.

The international community has commented on the Bahraini government’s targeting of Sheikh Isa Qassim. In June 2016, the United States issued a statement on Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship revocation. The US noted that they are “alarmed by the Government of Bahrain’s decision to revoke the citizenship of… Sheikh Isa Qassim.” Officials noted at the time that the move was the latest action in a concerning trend of moves by Bahraini authorities to “further divert Bahrainis from the path of reform and reconciliation.” And 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.

Since January 2017, tensions on the ground in Bahrain have increased. On 15 January, Bahraini officials executed three stateless torture victims, Ali al-Singace, Abbas al-Samea, and Sami Mushaima. Police have used excessive force against protesters, which resulted in the shooting of 18-year-old Mustafa Hamdan with live ammunition in Diraz. Hamdan was shot in the back of the head and rendered comatose. The government has recently regranted arresting powers to the National Security Agency (NSA), reversing one of the few previously-implemented Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations. And the lower house of the Parliament in February 2017 approved an amendment to the Constitution that would allow military courts to try civilians.