Prominent Bahraini Political Leader Sentenced to Life in Prison Weeks Before Election

5 November 2018 – Yesterday, on 4 November 2018, leading Bahraini opposition figure Sheikh Ali Salman and two members of the now-dissolved al-Wefaq Society, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, were sentenced to life in prison for espionage, overturning acquittals by a lower court. This decision comes just weeks before Bahrain holds elections for the lower house of parliament, and a month before Sheikh Salman was supposed to be released from prison after serving four years of a previous sentence. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) strongly condemns the political nature of this sentencing and calls on the government to immediately drop all charges against Sheikh Salman, Sheikh Sultan, and Al Aswad.

Sheikh Ali Salman has been facing judicial harassment since 2014, when he was arrested and later sentenced to four years in prison on free expression charges relating to political speeches he gave in his capacity as Secretary General of the al-Wefaq political society. In November 2017, as his sentence was concluding, Bahraini authorities brought new spurious espionage charges against him for ‘spying for Qatar.’ The charges are in relation to communications he had with Qatar back in 2011. At the time Qatar was expected to play a mediating role between the Bahraini government and the opposition following the violent crackdown on peaceful protests. The potential mediation efforts were public and well-documented, with the Bahraini government’s full knowledge and United States’ support.

In June 2018, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court found Sheikh Ali Salman innocent of these politically motivated charges related to espionage, but the Public Prosecution Office immediately appealed the verdict. Following several postponements of the appeals trial, bringing the ruling closer to Bahrain’s elections, Bahrain’s High Court of Appeals overturned the acquittal and sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman and his two co-defendants to life in prison. Sheikh Ali Salman’s lawyer plans to appeal yesterday’s ruling.

“This sentencing is a blatant attack on Bahrain’s organized political opposition. The government had already effectively closed all political and civil space ahead of elections, so sentencing prominent political leader Sheikh Ali Salman to life in prison demonstrates the level Bahrain will go to silence and intimidate opposition,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “The absurd nature of these espionage charges further cements the political nature of the entire case. The Government of Bahrain must drop the arbitrary charges against Sheikh Ali Salman and immediately release him.”

The sentencing of political leader Sheikh Ali Salman and two other opposition figures to life in prison is emblematic of the political climate in Bahrain ahead of elections on 24 November. With political opposition societies dissolved and political figures behind bars, among countless other politically restrictive measures, the environment in Bahrain is far from being conducive to holding free and fair elections.