Bahrain court overturns jail term of opposition chief

Bahrain court overturns jail term of opposition chief
A Bahrain court has overturned a jail term against Shia opposition cleric Ali Salman, who is serving a nine-year jail term on charges of inciting hatred and forceful regime change.
3 min read
17 October, 2016
Salman was convicted of inciting hatred and calling for forceful regime change [AFP]
A top court in Bahrain on Monday overturned a nine-year jail term against Shia opposition chief cleric Ali Salman, convicted of inciting hatred and calling for forceful regime change.

The court of the cassation ordered a retrial of the head of the al-Wefaq political formation before the appeals court, said a judicial source.

Salman had been sentenced in July 2015 to four years in jail after being convicted of inciting hatred in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom.

But the appeals court in May more than doubled his jail term to nine years after reversing an earlier acquittal on charges of calling for regime change by force.

Earlier this month, the cassation court rejected a request to release the cleric.

Salman's arrest in December 2014 sparked protests in Shia-majority Bahrain.

His jail sentence came during a crackdown on the Gulf nation's largest opposition group, which has been dissolved by a court order over accusations of "harbouring terrorism".

Al-Wefaq had the largest bloc in parliament before lawmakers walked out in February 2011 in protest over a deadly crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests.

The crackdown on the group has drawn criticism from UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Bahrain's allies in Washington, as well as rights groups.

"The Secretary-General is concerned by recent actions of the Bahraini authorities seemingly aimed at restricting the country's political opposition," a UN statement said in June.

"These include the dissolution of Al Wefaq… and the lengthening of the sentence of Sheikh Ali Salman, of Al Wefaq."

Crackdown on opposition

Hundreds of Shias have been arrested and put on trial since security forces backed by Saudi-led troops crushed in March 2011 month-long protests that demanded democratic reforms.

Authorities have also stripped at least 261 people of their citizenship since 2012, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, including the country's Shia spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassim.

Last month, the US urged Bahrain to immediately release prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who is in prison over a tweet criticising Manama's participation in the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.

"We call on the government of Bahrain to release him [Rajab] immediately," State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said.

"We have concerns about the state of human rights in general in Bahrain and we're engaging with the government ... on all these issues."

The State Department's statements come just two days after The New York Times published a letter by Rajab, in which he said he was facing prosecution for exposing human rights abuses in Bahrain and criticising the war in Yemen.

Following the publication of the letter, Bahraini authorities filed new charges against Rajab, for "publishing a column in a foreign newspaper in which he deliberately broadcast news, statements and false rumours that undermine the kingdom's prestige and stature."

HRW also joined a growing chorus of international rights groups calling on Bahrain to release Rajab and other detained activists.

"Bahrain keeping Nabeel Rajab in a prison cell for criticising abuses shows the ruling Al Khalifa family's deep contempt for basic human rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"States that claim to support peaceful activism should use the Human Rights Council session to demand Rajab's immediate release. And they should push Bahrain to lift the restrictions placed on Nabeel's colleagues."