Alwaght – On Saturday, the Bahraini Court of Appeal held its fourth session to see into the case of Sheikh Ali bin Salman, the head of the country’s Al-Wefaq movement, and two of former lawmakers, Hassan Sultan, and Ali al-Aswad, on charges of spying for Qatar. The court overturned the previous acquittals and sentenced them to life in jail.
Since 2011, the year that the Arab uprisings in West Asia and North Africa against the dictatorships erupted, the Bahraini regime has been systematically cracking down on the opposition through terrorizing, detention, and torturing according to the international organizations’ reports. But now giving life sentence to the leader of the largest opposition movement in the small Persian Gulf country at the present time under the ridiculous charges of espionage for neighboring Qatar raises many questions and speculations on the real objectives behind the ruling.
Sheikh Ali Salman was banished by the ruling Al Khalifa regime in the 1990s as the secretary general of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Movement. He came back to the country in 2001 and resumed his political activities as before. This continued until 2011 when the anti-regime rallies broke out. He had a key role in organizing the peaceful demonstrations that called for political reforms and end of the discrimination against the Shiites, who are a majority in the country.
Responding to his activism, the Bahraini rulers embarked on a campaign of pressures and threats against him. He was several times detained and recalled by the court. But each time the authorities, fearing a massive backlash, escaped the option of sending him to jail.
Despite that, he was finally arrested on December 28, 2014. At the time, the court listed a set of charges against him, ranging from the use of violence and threats and calls for regime change to inciting the people for civil disobedience and resorting to sectarianism to press the regime. In 2015, the king confirmed a court’s ruling of a four-year jail term for him.
While the cleric has been in prison for over the past three years and was not allowed to contact with the outside world, the regime has failed to restore to normal the county’s conditions. The people kept regular protests against the regime’s oppression and repression on various occasions.
The continuation of the pro-democracy rallies led to a set of moves made by Al Khalifa. The rulers in mid-June 2017 revoked citizenship of the top cleric and the spiritual leader of the Shiites of the country Ayatollah Sheikh Issa Qassim. And the latest move was giving Sheikh Ali Salman a life sentence while only a year was left to his four-year prison term. So, the regime now gave him a ruling that will terminate his freedom forever, despite the fact that he, together with his two colleagues, was acquitted on June 21 of spying charges in a rare victory for the activists in the island kingdom.
The prosecutor claimed that the regime has an audio tape of a conversation between Sheikh Salman and Sheikh Sultan with the Qatari officials. But the regime denied any spying for Doha, adding that the conversation dated back to 2011 when the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar proposed a plan to end the crisis between the opposition and Al Khalifa rulers while the anti-regime protests were unfolding. The talks, the regime said, were made with full knowledge of the king.
Sheikh Hussein al-Deihi, Al-Wefaq’s deputy secretary general, in October last year revealed that the contacts made between Sheikh Salman and the former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani were at the suggestion of Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. He noted that it took place as part of a national reconciliation plan pushed forward by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar at the request of the former Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. Al-Deihi maintained that the former US Deputy Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman was part of the contacts.
The issue can simply be put to fact-checking. The regime can simply publish the audio and allow it to be circulated by the media to allow the world see if, as the court alleges, the leader passed sensitive information to Qatar for potential attacks on Bahrain’s infrastructure.
The foreign actors, mainly the Saudis, can be apparently tracked in forging charges against Sheikh Salman. In the first place, the decision, due to its sensitivity, was certainly made after consultations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is now angry with Qatar for the latter’s actions and extensive media coverage via Aljazeera news network surrounding the case of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the outspoken critic of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was killed by 15 Saudi-sent agents on October 2 upon his entry to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Bin Salman has been the target of fiercest global reactions for the killing. The reactions are so strong that now speculations are made about his ousting from his post as the first heir to the Saudi throne.
In the middle of the pressures, the crown prince appears to seek pretexts to keep and even step up the strains on Doha under the excuse of meddling in Arab states’ home affairs. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, assisted by Egypt, UAE, and Bahrain, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a full blockade on the Arab emirate.
On the other hand, Saudi rulers appear to seek ego boost and image mending using Bahraini cleric’s case. Yemen war, since 2015, formed a quagmire to the Saudi forces whose loss is a certain matter. Recently, the US issued an ultimatum urging both sides of Yemen war to end the conflict within a month. Encouraging pressure on the Shiite majority through the spying charges against Sheikh Salman, Riyadh eyes a face-saving blow to the Iran-led Axis of Resistance that includes Yemen and also Bahraini Shiites.
Al Khalifa’s iron fist policy at home
The Bahraini regime has stepped up clampdown against the influential figures as the November 24 parliamentary election, boycotted by the whole body of opposition, approaches. The regime is afraid that the influencers can discredit the largely sham election with their speeches to the public.
From another dimension, Al Khalifa finds it risky to release the political prisoners amid reports that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could soon visit Bahrain in a rare and anger-unleashing trip. Aware of opposition leaders’ protestor mobilization potentials, the rulers began to tightly strangle the political climate.