Bahrain court upholds jail sentence for opposition chief

Bahrain court upholds jail sentence for opposition chief
A Bahraini court has upheld a nine-year jail sentence against Shia opposition chief Sheikh Ali Salman on charges of inciting hatred and calling for regime change by force.
3 min read
12 December, 2016
Ali Salman has pushed for a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain [AFP]

Bahrain's appeals court has upheld a nine-year jail sentence against opposition chief Sheikh Ali Salman, a judicial source said, the latest move in a crackdown on the Shia majority.

The sentence against Salman, for inciting hatred and calling for regime change by force, had been overturned by the court of cassation in October.

The 51-year-old is considered a moderate who has pushed for a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, unlike hardline groups who have demanded the toppling of the Sunni al- Khalifa dynasty.

His arrest in December 2014, in connection with speeches he had given, sparked protests in Shia-majority Bahrain.

Human Rights Watch said he was arrested and charged "despite the fact Salman renounced violence and called for peaceful protest in his speeches".

The charismatic Shia cleric was sentenced in July 2015 to four years in jail after being convicted of inciting hatred in the 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.

The court of cassation overturned that sentence on 17 October and ordered a retrial before the appeals court.

It also rejected a request to release the cleric.

In July, a court ordered the dissolution of Salman's al-Wefaq movement for "harbouring terrorism", inciting violence and encouraging demonstrations which threatened to spark sectarian strife.

The decision drew strong criticism from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Bahrain's allies in Washington and London, and Shia-dominated Iran.

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.

Harsh crackdown

Bahrain has harshly cracked down over the past five years on dissent by the Shia majority, which they accuse of being manipulated by Iran.

The kingdom stripped 31 Shia activists of their nationality in October 2012 for breaching state security, and Human Rights Watch says most of them have been left stateless.

Bahrain has repeatedly arrested and detained other opposition leaders, including Nabeel Rajab, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

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The Shia human rights activist, who had been pardoned for health reasons last year, was re-arrested in June and is on trial on a list of charges, including "spreading false news and rumours and inciting propaganda during wartime which could undermine the war operations by the Bahraini armed forces and weaken the nation", according to state media.

He is also accused of insulting a state institution and Saudi Arabia after posting comments on his Twitter account that criticised the kingdom's role in Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, according to HRW.

The New York-based rights watchdog on Monday issued a statement calling for Rajab's immediate release, saying the charges against him "inherently violate the right to free expression".

"Rajab shouldn't have been arrested in the first place and countries like the UK, France, and Germany should be loudly calling for his immediate release," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

"Keeping him in detention for all these months while the government seeks an expert opinion only compounds the injustice."

Human Rights Watch has in the past criticised the silence of Bahrain's Western allies as the kingdom has "filled its jails with the people who hold the key to the political solution the UK and US claim to support".

Agencies contributed to this report.