SHAFAQNA – Bahrain’s main opposition leader has been charged with attempting to overthrow the government of the western-backed Gulf state – a significant escalation in a crackdown on dissent.Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the al-Wefaq movement, is to stand trial at the end of the month on charges of “promoting the overthrow and change of the political regime by force”, it was announced in Manama on Monday.
Salman, a Shia cleric, has been in custody since he was arrested at the end of last month. His detention has prompted protests in Shia villages across the Sunni-ruled island kingdom.
Bahrain, which was ruled by Britain until 1971, is home to the US Fifth fleet and the Royal Navy is building a permanent base there. Unusually, the US issued a warning that his arrest could “inflame tensions”.
In a separate case, Bahrain’s leading human rights activist, Nabil Rajab, is to be sentenced on charges of posting offensive messages on Twitter. He faces up to six years in prison. Twenty-one British MPs expressed their concern about his case in a letter sent to the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, on Monday.
Human rights watchdogs have urged the kingdom to release Salman and Rajab in parallel with controversy over the recent flogging of jailed blogger Raif Badawi in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Both countries enjoy close political, strategic and commercial ties with the US and Britain.
Salman’s al-Wefaq movement is a legally recognised political society. It boycotted Bahrain’s elections in November on the grounds that promised reforms had not taken place. Critics accuse it of pursuing a radical agenda and encouraging violence, but it insists it is methods are peaceful and its sole interest democracy. Unlike other Bahraini opposition groups which have demanded the overthrow of the al-Khalifa dynasty, al-Wefaq wants a constitutional monarchy.
Prosecutor Nayef Mahmud said Salman had confessed to having “contacted regimes and political groups abroad with whom he discussed Bahraini internal affairs”. Some of these parties had “expressed readiness” to “interfere in Bahrain’s affairs”, said the prosecution, adding that the contacts took place without Bahraini officials being informed.
“This is like a declaration of war against the political societies which have been tolerated so far,” one Bahraini analyst said. “This is the end of licensed political opposition.”
Human Rights Watch urged Bahrain’s western allies to press for the release of the detained activists. “When it comes to punishing peaceful critics of the government or ruling family, Bahrain is a serial offender,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy director of Middle East and North Africa.
He added that Salman’s arrest “seems calculated to send a message to Bahrainis and the world that political reconciliation and respect for fundamental rights are completely off the table. Bahrain’s allies in London, Paris and elsewhere have largely stayed silent as Bahrain has filled its jails with the people who hold the key to the political solution the UK and US claim to support. “Who will Bahrain have to detain and on what nonsensical charges before Bahrain’s allies speak out?”
HRW accused the Bahraini authorities of failing to release evidence against Salman, and has called for his immediate release and for charges against him to be dropped.
Source : http://www.theguardian.com/