Bahraini Public Prosecution Advocate General Osama al-Oufi announced on 24 April 2018 that the High Criminal Court had adjourned the new trial of imprisoned opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman and his two in absentia codefendants, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mehdi Ali Al Aswad, until 21 June. The court is expected to issue its verdict against the three leading members of the now-dissolved Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society – Bahrain’s largest opposition group – on politically motivated charges of establishing “intelligence links with Qatar” to “undermine its political and economic status as well as its national interest and to overthrow the political system.” The Public Prosecution Office has called on the High Criminal Court to hand down the “maximum penalty,” which in this case could be the death sentence.
Sheikh Salman, the only defendant presently detained, was originally arrested in December 2014 and ultimately sentenced to four years in prison on charges of “inciting disobedience and hatred in the kingdom” for giving speeches in his capacity as Al-Wefaq’s Secretary-General. In November 2017, as Sheikh Salman started to near the end of his sentence, the government abruptly brought a new set of charges against him and his fellow Al-Wefaq members. The charges appear to stem from an open and well-documented mediation attempt originally encouraged by the United States (US) during the 2011 unrest, which resulted in preliminary communications between Qatar – as a potential mediator – and the Bahraini government and opposition. Though these interactions have been known since 2011, the accusations were only raised once Bahrain entered into a diplomatic dispute between Qatar and several other countries in the region in June 2017. The US State Department’s recent April 2018 report on Bahrain’s human rights situation for 2017 expressed concern over the continued prosecution of Sheikh Salman and reiterated the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s opinion that the opposition leader is arbitrarily detained.
The groundless new trial of Sheikh Salman and his codefendants comes as part of the government’s wider assault on independent political and civil society ahead of the 2018 elections for Bahrain’s lower house of parliament. In 2017, the government forcibly dissolved Wa’ad, the largest secular leftist society, and indefinitely suspended Bahrain’s only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat. Additionally, in 2018 Bahrain’s Court of Cassation ruled to uphold the arbitrary dissolution of Al-Wefaq, and the authorities have continued to harass members of the smaller al-Wahdawi society, the only opposition group that has yet to be formally shut down by the government. These actions have all but closed political space in Bahrain, leaving virtually no opposition remaining as the election approaches.
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 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Government of Bahrain must immediately release Sheikh Ali Salman, as well as all other prisoners of conscience, and reinstate all arbitrarily dissolved political societies, such as Al-Wefaq and Wa’ad.