Cleric's revoked citizenship signals Bahrain's crackdown on opposition
Last month, the Bahraini government revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the country's top Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of its largest opposition group al-Wefaq. Qassim was previously assumed to be something of a red line – a figure too revered among the country's Shia majority for the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy to target.
While human rights groups have strongly condemned the decision, Bahrain's Interior Ministry says the 79-year-old cleric has encouraged violence and serves unnamed "foreign interests" – a reference presumably to Iran, who the government accuses of stirring up unrest in the country.
The move against Qassim is the latest in what activists describe as a dramatic escalation in the monarchy's crackdown on political dissent, which began in early 2011 after Shia-led protests calling for democratic and civil rights threatened the government's grip on power.
In recent weeks, a string of other repressive measures have been taken, including the suspension of al-Wefaq, the arrest of prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, the forcing into exile of another well-known activist, Zainab al-Khawaja and the increase of Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman's prison term from four to nine years.
"The regime is pursuing policies of repression and exclusion", says former al-Wefaq MP Matar Ibrahim Matar, who resigned from office in February 2011 after security forces killed four protesters at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain's capital.
"Because of the widespread discrimination they face, the Shia are united around religious figures like Sheikh Isa", Matar says, referring to the wave of popular support and angry protests seen over the last week in solidarity with the elderly cleric.
Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini activist and co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, says the decision to revoke Qassim's citizenship also carries a symbolic meaning.
"The target is not him as a person, but to send a message to the Shia community because he's the highest Shia scholar," she says. "The government wants to regain control and remind people who's in charge."
|Brian Dooley, the director of Human Rights First, warned that the new measures were 'intended to block all avenues of peaceful dissent' and could 'fuel extremism and deepen political instability' in Bahrain.|
Escalating the crackdown is unlikely to stabilise the country, however. In a statement published after al-Wefaq's suspension in June, Brian Dooley, the director of Human Rights First, warned that the new measures were "intended to block all avenues of peaceful dissent" and could "fuel extremism and deepen political instability" in Bahrain.
In total, more than 100 people have been killed since unrest inspired by the region-wide Arab Spring swept the small Gulf state in 2011. Most died at the hands of the country's notorious security forces, including at least five who were tortured to death in custody, while a number of police officers have also been killed by bomb blasts in Shia villages.
On Friday, the Interior Ministry reported another attack, which killed a Bahraini woman in the village of East Eker, however the circumstances of the incident remain unclear.
Al-Khawaja condemns all violence and says that most people are showing "impressive restraint" by demonstrating peacefully. The security forces, meanwhile, have responded to protests over the last week with tear gas and rubber bullets, causing a number of injuries, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
With opposition groups and civil society coming under growing pressure, however, there is the possibility that greater numbers will embrace violent tactics against the monarchy.
"We have splinter groups who believe violence is the only way and the majority of peaceful political leaders in prison. This makes things unpredictable," says Al-Khawaja.
|This latest escalation marks the point at which Bahrain feels it can dispense with the cover story and get on with with the job at hand, which is to quash civil society and all voices of dissent
As things stand, all but one of the "Bahrain Thirteen" – a group of opposition leaders jailed in 2011 for their role in the uprising – are still behind bars.
Al-Wefaq's political leader Sheikh Ali Salman, who had been a leading voice for non-violence, joined them in December 2014, and has since had his prison sentence more than doubled.
In addition, many of the country's most prominent human rights defenders are now either in jail, like Nabeel Rajab – who faces up to thirteen years prison over tweets – or exile, like Maryam and her sister, Zainab.
According to Al-Khawaja, "The situation is worse than in 2011. The crackdown then was knee-jerk, chaotic and all over the place. Now, they've institutionalised it, using the judiciary as the main tool of repression."
Bahrain's rulers paint a very different picture, claiming that the government has implemented wide-ranging reforms and greatly improved its human rights record.
King Hamad even held a ceremony in May to mark Bahrain's "full implementation" of the recommendations for human rights reforms laid out by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).
The King ordered the inquiry in June 2011 to look into allegations of police brutality against protesters during the first few months of the uprising. It found that widespread human rights abuses had been carried out by security forces, including systematic abuse, torture and killings.
Cherif Bassiouni, the international law expert who headed the inquiry, has said that only 10 of BICI's 26 recommendations have been "substantially" implemented, however. Bahraini human rights organisations put the number even lower, assessing that two have been implemented fully, 16 partially and eight not implemented at all.
Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, is also dismissive of the government's commitment to reform.
"It has been obvious for some time that the Bahraini government's policy was to manage a grinding repression and to use talk of reform and dialogue as cover," he says.
|Britain, in particular, has been a staunch supporter of the monarchy, praising its reform efforts while substantially increasing arms sales to the country since 2011|
"This latest escalation marks the point at which Bahrain feels it can dispense with the cover story and get on with with the job at hand, which is to quash civil society and all voices of dissent."
Al-Khawaja shares this view, arguing that "there has never been political will for reform in Bahrain in the last five years". She puts much of the blame on Bahrain's Western allies for failing to push the government in the right direction or hold it to account for human rights abuses.
Britain, in particular, has been a staunch supporter of the monarchy, praising its reform efforts while substantially increasing arms sales to the country since 2011. Recently, it was revealed that Britain had even lobbied the UN to water down criticism of Bahrain's human rights record, including over alleged police torture.
Al-Khawaja says Bahrain now feels emboldened to escalate repression. "The extreme increase in confidence (from the Bahraini government) is due to the lack of international accountability over the last five years," she says. "They have been enabled by the US and the UK – but the UK even more so."
Interestingly, she also points to "the lack of an appropriate international response to the crackdown on civil society in Egypt" as one of the reasons for Bahrain's willingness to intensify its targeting of opposition groups and activists.
"Regimes feel confident that there will not be any accountability," she says.
Bahrain's international partners could still reverse course, however, and play a more positive role in the country's future.
According to Al-Khawaja, "Bahrain has the potential to go either way, and it could be a rare success story if its allies decide to step up and take a stronger stance on human rights abuses."
But if things continue as they are, she says, with little outside pressure for reform, "Bahrain will become another country that went very wrong."
Daniel Wickham is a human rights activist. Follow him on Twitter @DanielWickham93