Iran Review|Seyyed Razi Emadi: Introduction:As popular protests spread across Bahrain, Al Khalifah regime intensifies persecution of political and religious leaders at the same time that it suppresses people’s protests. Therefore, while the number of people killed in Bahrain protests in 2015 and 2016 was not comparable to figures that were reported from 2011 to the end of 2014, the degree of violence against political and religious leaders in Bahrain has been increased since the end of 2014. On December 28, 2014, the government of Bahrain arrested secretary general of the opposition al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, Sheikh Ali Salman.
After being held in detention for five months without any judicial warrant, Sheikh Ali Salman was finally tried by a court in Bahrain in June 2015 and was sentenced to four years in prison. However, the appeals court heard the case on May 30, 2016, increasing Sheikh Ali Salman’s sentence from four to nine years and this verdict was upheld by Bahrain’s high court in December 2016. At the same time, in June 2016, the government of Bahrain stripped Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of the country’s Shia population, of his citizenship and charged him with money laundering in December 2016.
The important question is why Al Khalifah regime has increased violence against popular leaders at the same time that it has been scaling down violence against protesters? The most important goal pursued by the government in Bahrain through increasing violence against political and religious leaders of the protest movement in the country is to eliminate these leaders and cut their contacts with their followers. Unlike protests in many other Arab countries and even unlike protests in Egypt in 2011, popular protests in Bahrain against Al Khalifah regime do have a leader. The main reason for this situation is that anti-government protests as well as political demands in Bahrain date back to 45 years ago.
Bahrain can be considered as the sole member state of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, which had a parliament even in the 1970s. The first parliamentary elections in Bahrain were held in December 1972. The important point is that restricting citizenship rights to the right to vote for men while women are deprived of this right and participation in elections, elicited protests from women in the country. Another important point is that Bahrain’s parliament did not approve the “state security law” in 1975, which would authorize the government to use more violence against people and this issue prompted the former emir of Bahrain, Isa bin Salman Al Khalifah, to dissolve the parliament.
As a result, the country did not have a parliament up to 2002. This issue shows that political protests in Bahrain, unlike other member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council date back to several decades ago.
Since Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah – the king of Bahrain who assumed the position following death of his father in 1999 – was aware of people’s demands for the reopening of the parliament, the way was paved for the approval of the national charter of the country in 2001. This was followed by political reforms from 2000 to 2002 and holding of parliamentary elections.
All political parties and groups, which are currently active in Bahrain, including al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, came into being following political reforms that took place between 2000 and 2002. However, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa suddenly decided to ignore those reforms in 2002, including the national charter, and the new constitution was drawn up without attention to the contents of the national charter. He then changed his title from “emir” to “king,” and this course of events intensified totalitarianism in Bahrain. The rise in totalitarianism prompted Bahrain’s people and political groups to take important steps against Al Khalifah regime even before 2011, including through banning parliamentary elections in the country.
However, Bahrain’s political parties and groups were looking for a better opportunity to give voice to more serious protests against Al Khalifah regime and developments that took place in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 followed by downfall of their dictatorial leaders, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, provided Bahrainis with that opportunity. Al Khalifah regime believes that continuation of protests in the country is the result of the leadership of political and religious leaders. Therefore, while trying to remove these leaders from political arena of Bahrain by sentencing them to long terms in prison or stripping them of their citizenship, the government is also trying to bar further contacts between people and these influential leaders.
Another question is why the government of Bahrain has taken more serious steps to eliminate religious leaders of the protest movement in the country since the second half of 2016? The most important answer to this question is that Al Khalifah regime is trying to take advantage of regional conditions in the Middle East. In other words, the government of Bahrain looks upon the ongoing crises in Syria, Yemen and Iraq as an opportunity. While the public opinion, especially in the Middle East region, is focused on important developments in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the government of Bahrain takes advantage of this process as an opportunity to do away with religious leaders, because measures taken by Al Khalifah regime are less important and draw less attention from regional and transregional powers in comparison with what is going on in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.