UPDATED: Bahrain brings new charges against Al-Wefaq’s Sheikh Ali Salman amid campaign against opposition

**Update: On 29 November 2017, Bahraini authorities postponed the trial of Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of the now-dissolved opposition group Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, to 28 December. Sheikh Salman, who remains imprisoned on charges stemming solely from a political speeches he delivered in 2014, was not present at the first session of his new trial on allegations of conspiring with Qatar, though he agreed to attend the second hearing two days later. He continues to deny the charges leveled against him.

21 November 2017 – On 1 November 2017, Bahraini authorities brought new charges of maintaining “intelligence contacts with Qatar” against opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of the now-dissolved Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. Sheikh Salman is currently incarcerated on charges stemming solely from political speeches he delivered in 2014, and these new accusations threaten to further extend his arbitrary prison term. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) condemns the Bahraini government’s judicial campaign against peaceful political opposition and calls on the authorities to immediately drop these baseless new charges against Sheikh Ali Salman.

In a statement published by Bahraini state media, the Public Prosecution Office (PPO) announced on 12 November 2017 that it had formally referred the case against Sheikh Salman to the High Criminal Court. Along with two other defendants who are not in custody, former Al-Wefaq MP Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, Sheikh Salman is being accused of “establishing foreign intelligence links [with Qatar] to commit subversive acts against Bahrain and undermine its political, economic position and national interests with the purpose of overthrowing the regime,” including by accepting “financial sums” to provide “military secrets and information pertaining to … [Bahrain’s] internal affairs” and to “spread false rumours aimed to weaken the financial confidence in Bahrain to damage its national sovereignty and financial reputation abroad” during the “2011 crisis.” Notably, Sheikh Salman’s first co-defendant, Sheikh Hassan, was publicly defamed in pro-government media over similar allegations in June 2017; at the same time, Bahraini authorities – including officials from the National Security Agency (NSA) – repeatedly detained and tortured his son, Mohamed Hasan Ali Mohamed Juma Sultan, in an attempt to coerce him into becoming an informant to help them target Sheikh Sultan and other political figures. The government arbitrarily stripped Sheikh Sultan of his citizenship in 2015, and he is no longer in the country.

As “evidence,” the only information cited by the PPO that appears to involve the defendants is the “existence of direct communications via meetings between [Qatari officials and Al-Wefaq] inside Bahrain and abroad and the exchange of messages and telephone calls” monitored by the Bahraini authorities, and the appearance of Al-Wefaq members in well-known Qatari media outlets like Al Jazeera. However, as noted by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), Qatar’s mediation between the government and the opposition groups was open and well-documented in 2011, including by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The remaining “evidence” presented by the PPO in its statement pertains solely to alleged actions of the Qatari government, such as the “Qatari media’s hostile campaign against Bahrain.” It similarly cites as evidence of criminal intent “to weaken these mobilizations aimed to secure Bahrain by not participating in them” – i.e., the Qatari government’s purported decision to not send personnel as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s Peninsula Shield Force, a joint military command which was deployed to help Bahraini authorities suppress protests in 2011. Yet, even this claim is contradicted by reports that the Qatari military did in fact contribute troops alongside the predominantly Saudi and Emirati contingent to assist, in the Qatari government’s words, in “restoring order and security.”

These bizarre allegations were not raised publicly by the Bahraini government in the intervening six years, against Al-Wefaq or Qatar, until the onset of the Saudi- and Emirati-led diplomatic row with the latter in June 2017. It appears the claims are part of the Bahraini government’s wider campaign against political opposition, domestically, and now Qatar, regionally. Since the political conflict began, the Bahraini authorities have criminalized shows of public support for Qatar, prosecuting an attorney for allegedly discussing a legal challenge against the anti-Qatar boycott on social media and in an interview with a Qatari newspaper. Moreover, the Bahraini governments’ decision to bring new charges against Sheikh Salman, and to perpetuate the ongoing GCC crisis, openly contravenes the wishes of the United States (US), one the kingdom’s key allies which has repeatedly called for both Sheikh Salman’s release and an end to the dispute with Qatar. The move follows the Bahraini government’s June 2017 demand that the US military accept the expulsion of Qatari troops from the American naval base in Manama, directly undermining US joint operations conducted from the facility, which include strikes against the ISIS extremist group.

Bahraini security forces initially arrested Sheikh Salman in December 2014, after he delivered a political speech. Several months later, in June 2015, a criminal court sentenced him to four years in prison on a litany of charges including inciting hatred against the government, but acquitted him on the more serious charge of inciting revolution. The prosecution appealed the acquittal, and in May 2016 the appeals court reversed the decision, convicting him of inciting revolution and increasing his sentence to nine years. In October 2016, the Court of Cassation, Bahrain’s highest court, ordered a retrial, and in December 2016 a Bahraini appeals court confirmed the new nine-year sentence. However, in April 2017, the Court of Cassation ultimately acquitted Sheikh Salman of the “inciting change of the regime” charge, officially returning the prison term to four years. Sheikh Salman is currently serving the sentence in Jau Prison, though he now faces further prison time. As early as September 2015, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) determined that Sheikh Salman was being held arbitrarily and recommended his immediate release with an enforceable right to compensation.

In 2016, with Sheikh Salman incarcerated, the government moved to forcibly dissolve his political society, Al-Wefaq. On 14 June 2016 a court approved the society’s suspension within hours of receiving a request from the Ministry of Justice. Authorities immediately enforced the order, freezing the group’s assets, blocking its website, and closing its headquarters. On 17 July 2016, after the judiciary expedited the legal proceedings, the High Civil Court affirmed the order and formally dissolved Al-Wefaq. The Second High Civil Court of Appeals upheld the dissolution on 22 September 2016.

The authorities have taken similar action against nearly all opposition groups. In 2012, the government dissolved Amal, another opposition political society, and this year it moved to close down Wa’ad (also known as the National Democratic Action Society), Bahrain’s leading leftist, secular society and the largest opposition organization after Al-Wefaq. On 26 October 2017, the High Court of Appeals confirmed Wa’ad dissolution and the seizure of its assets, citing the organization’s “support with the Al-Wefaq” among the justifications for the ruling. Like Sheikh Salman, Wa’ad’s leaders have also faced judicial harassment and extended prison terms stemming from free expression and political activism. Similarly, the authorities are also currently incarcerating Fadhel Abbas, the leader of Al-Wahdawi, a smaller leftist opposition society, on charges related to tweets.

The government’s systematic campaign against the opposition, of which Sheikh Salman’s new charges are only the most recent attack, has intensified ahead of the elections for the lower house of Bahrain’s National Assembly set for 2018. According to the PPO, Sheikh Salman will now remain in detention on these new charges at the end of his current sentence, which should ensure that he is imprisoned during the elections and their aftermath. These actions also contravene formal US recommendations made to the Government of Bahrain during its third UN Universal Periodic Review cycle in May 2017, which called on Bahraini authorities to “review convictions, commute sentences, or drop charges for all persons imprisoned solely for non-violent political expression.” The US additionally submitted an advance question specifically asking if the Bahraini government had a “plan to respect its international obligations with regard to freedom of association, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in light of recent legal action against political societies.”

“It’s clear that the Government of Bahrain has a plan to deal with peaceful political activists – it is simply to disregard international norms and forcibly eliminate all remaining opposition before next year’s elections,” said Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director. “These arbitrary new charges against Sheikh Ali Salman are a transparent attempt to justify the continued incarceration of a major opposition leader, all while seizing an opportunity to tar Qatar in their petty regional dispute. But the Bahraini government’s decisions fly in the face of Washington’s stated preferences on both fronts – the US needs to make it clear that it won’t stand for such blatant repression of peaceful political expression and association in a close ally.”

The Bahraini government has violated Sheikh Ali Salman’s rights to liberty, fair trial, free expression, and free association as defined in articles 2, 9, 10 11, 18, 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and articles 9, 14, 18, 19, 21, 22, 25, and 26 of the ICCPR. The authorities must immediately release Sheikh Ali Salman, as well as all other prisoners of conscience, and reinstate all arbitrarily dissolved political societies, like Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad. ADHRB additionally calls on the US and Bahrain’s other key allies to urge the authorities to curb their gross and systematic violations of the right to free expression and association, particularly in advance of the 2018 elections.