Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Bahraini regime of systematically targeting religious leaders of the country’s Shia community and violating the clerics’ right to freedom of expression and gathering.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the New York-based rights organization said credible local sources estimate that Bahraini authorities have questioned or brought charges against at least 56 Shia clerics since June.
“Now that the Bahraini authorities have begun to run out of human rights defenders and political activists to jail, silence, or exile, they are moving on to the Shia community’s religious leaders,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
Stork further noted that Manama seems to be “willfully and recklessly fanning the flames of sectarianism, while simultaneously taking moderate voices out of play” in the tiny Persian Gulf state.
HRW also referred to the cases of several Bahraini clerics who have been targeted in the government’s heavy-handed crackdown, among them Sheikh Ali Humaidan, Sheikh Isa Qassim, Sheikh Ali Salman and Sheikh Maytham al-Salman.
Last week, Sheikh Humaidan, the imam of the al-Zahra Mosque in the northern town of Hamad, was handed down a one-year prison sentence on charges of “organizing illegal assemblies” in the village of Diraz.
Over the past few weeks, Diraz has been the scene of peaceful demonstrations outside the home of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, Bahrain’s main opposition group which has recently been dissolved by the Manama regime.
The top Shia cleric had his citizenship revoked in June, with Bahrain’s Interior Ministry accusing the clergyman of seeking the “creation of a sectarian environment.” Sheikh Qassim has rejected the accusation.
Back in May, a court increased from four to nine years the prison term for Sheikh Ali Salman, Wefaq’s secretary general. The cleric was arrested in December 2014 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Bahraini regime and collaborating with foreign powers; allegations rejected by Salman.
Earlier this month, another Shia cleric, Sheikh Maytham al-Salman, faced police questioning on charges of taking part in an illegal gathering. Salman said he was kept in interview rooms for 26 hours without sleep and ordered to remove his religious attire with authorities seeking to “insult and intimidate” him.
“These prosecutions and interrogations of clerics are the latest stage of a systematic campaign to nullify dissent and protest in Bahrain,” Stork said.
Bahrain, a close ally of the US in the Persian Gulf region, has seen a wave of anti-regime protests since mid-February 2011.
Several rights groups have frequently censured Bahrain for rampant human rights abuses against opposition activists and anti-regime demonstrators.
Scores of people have been killed and hundreds of others wounded or detained amid Manama’s ongoing crackdown on dissent and widespread discrimination against the country’s Shia majority.
By Press TV