On November 4th 2018, leading figure of the Bahraini opposition Ali Salman and two members of the now-dissolved al-Wefaq Society, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali Al Aswad, were sentenced to life imprisonment for espionage. This decision came weeks before Bahraini’s elections for a lower house of the parliament and a month before Salman was supposed to be released after four years of imprisonment.
Sheikh Salman was originally arrested in December 2014 on charges of “inciting disobedience and hatred in the Kingdom” for giving speeches as Secretary-General of the now dissolved Al-Wefaq opposition society, and he was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison. Towards the end of his four-year sentence, in November 2017, Sheikh Salman was charged again, this time for “conspiring with Qatar” during the peaceful protest movement in 2011; although Qatar has repeatedly denied these accusations. The charges stem from an open and documented mediation attempt that was originally encouraged by the United States, with the Bahraini government’s knowledge.
In June 2018, Salman was found innocent by the Bahrain’s High Criminal Court but an immediate appeal of the Public Prosecution Office lead to several postponements of the appeals trial and finally Bahrain’s High Court of Appeals overturned the acquittal and sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman and his two co-defendants to life in prison. The Supreme Court on Monday confirmed this verdict further sustaining that Al Salman and the other two members of al-Wefaq were spying a foreign state in order to overthrow the government.
Sheik Al Salman’s case has already been raised several times by the international community and by the European Union, more particularly by the European Parliament (EP) in its resolutions of July 2015 and July 2016. Moreover, right after Sheik Al Salman’s sentence, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI), Pieri Antonio Panzeri (S&D) had released a statement on the life sentence handed to him. MEP Panzeri had expressed his deep concerns over the arrest as well as all prisoners of conscience detained in Bahrain. In fact, the Parliament continues to call for its and other political prisoners release: other resolutions demand the liberation of Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Mohammed Ramadan, Hussain Ali Mosa, Sheik Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim and Khalil Al Halwachi.
The case of Sheikh Ali Salman is just one of many that shows the Bahraini government’s power to undermine and suppress the opposition, and the extent it will go to do so. It is deeply alarming that the government not only prosecuted one of the kingdom’s most prominent opposition leaders prior to elections, but also seeked his possible execution over baseless allegations. Sheikh Salman’s trial is a key example of the government’s assault on independent political and civil society, even as it moves to ban nearly all opposition members from participating outright.
The life in prison sentence against Sheikh Ali Salman should be of extreme concern to the international community. ECDHR calls on the Government of Bahrain to release Sheikh Salman at once and drop all extant charges against him. We further call on the international community, in particular key allies of Bahrain including the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union to pressure the Bahraini government to end its oppressive and systematic human rights violations, including its all-out crackdown on civil and political society.