The Bahraini government is closing in on Al Wefaq Islamic Society, the country's largest political group, whose key members are now in prison. The latest to be arrested is Shaikh Hasan Isa, who was picked up from the Bahrain International Airport, when he returned from a visit to Iran on August 18, and is being accused of funding “terrorism.”
It took the Bahraini Ministry of Interior five days to finally declare his arrest. No information was made public, despite a public outcry, and daily protests calling for his release. On the sixth day, the Ministry of Interior announced that Isa, a former member of parliament, was held for “funding terrorism” — heavy charges that could lock the opposition figure up for years.
Arrest of Former MP and Member of Al Wefaq for Financing Terrorism http://t.co/VMWGnR08e7
— Ministry of Interior (@moi_bahrain) August 23, 2015
In a statement released by the Ministry of Interior, it said:
He was arrested on the charge of financing terrorism by funding fugitive terrorists and others linked to terrorist acts.
The Director-General said the suspect received donations from various sources, including funds from the participants in rallies, and distributed the same among wanted fugitives. He also gave funds to a terrorist group and one of its members even though he was aware of their terrorist activities and helped cover up their crimes. He also provided shelter to members of the group despite knowing about its terrorist goals.
Following the announcement, many protested the accusations brought against the former legislator who won the 2010 elections with a 92 per cent of the total votes in his district in Sitra. His party, Al Wefaq, posted pictures of night protests in his home town.
— AlwefaqEN (@AlWefaqEN) August 24, 2015
An anonymous Bahraini woman with the nickname Siddiqa highlighted the government's headhunting of active dissidents who demand a democratic rule in the Gulf kingdom:
— Siddiqa (@Siddiqa15) August 25, 2015
He was always in the front lines among those demanding rights, so the government accused him of terrorism.
In a prompt response, dozens of people slammed the Interior Ministry with photographs of pro-government figures who openly raised funds and went to fight with militant groups in Syria.
Bahraini activist Hassan Al Sharqi posted the picture, saying:
— حسن الشارقي (@Hassan_Alsharqi) August 24, 2015
They gather funds and arms and export them to terror (groups) “openly” and Sheikh Hasan Isa gets arrested and accused of funding terrorism! Tell me, what class are the Shi'a?”.
Alsharqi is referring to the Interior Minister's statement that Bahrain's Shi'a are not second-class citizens, which he said during a press conference in response to widespread criticism of state discrimination against the Shia, who make the majority of citizens in Bahrain.
Some of the people in the photograph on the left were members of the Bahraini parliament at the time they went to fight in Syria. They are back in Bahrain now, but the government has not taken any measures against them since they now occupy official positions, enjoying immunity. This is despite the government being part of the US coalition against ISIS.
— #FreeSheikhAli (@BahrainUtd) August 24, 2015
Detaining the wrongly accused Sheikh Hasan Isa will not bring you stability or gain. And leaving those whose (crimes) were proven by definitive evidence free, will bring terrorism to the people
For any regular observer of the Bahraini situation, it would not be difficult to link this dangerous escalation against the Wefaq opposition party to the Bahraini regime's previous attempts to suspend the association and criminalize its leaders.
Last June, a Bahraini court sentenced the Secretary-General of Al Wefaq Sheikh Ali Salman to four years in prison. The sentence is to be reviewed by the Court of Appeals on September 15. Salman was charged with publicly inciting hatred, disturbing public peace, inciting civil disobedience of the law, insulting public institutions and promoting a change in the regime through military force, in addition to other charges. The court sentenced him on the first three charges and found him not guilty of the latter which carries the lengthiest jail term. The ruling received wide international criticism. Salman's political assistant, Khalil Almarzooq, was locked up for over one month in late 2013 until the court finally responded to international pressure and dropped his charges. Almarzooq was also accused of inciting violence and terrorism. But the trial to suspend Al Wefaq is still ongoing.
With two of its leading figures, Sheikh Hasan Isa and Majeed Milad, both former representatives, behind bars, alongside their Secretary General, Global Voices Online asked Khalil Almarzooq about what these trials could possibly bring to Bahrain.
“Distorting the image of Al Wefaq could isolate it internally and internationally, this would put the government in a stronger position to run away from real reform,” he said. Yet, he seemed confident that this would not be the case.
“The Bahraini authorities are misleading themselves by accusing Al Wefaq leaders on malicious charges that nobody can believe,” he added.
“That is because there is confidence that Al Wefaq has adopted a national, nonviolent methodology and reform agenda since its formation. This is despite the challenging circumstances over the past four years.”
Many believe that the government wants to shut out Al Wefaq from any political settlement in the future, in order to make the least concessions.
— Sameyakhalil (@azameel) August 27, 2015
Why target Al Wefaq leaders now as the region moves to settle the problems that need thorough dialogue?
Other law makers of the Wefaq bloc were stripped off their citizenship and/or arrested and tortured since 2011. It all started when the bloc walked out of parliament protesting the harsh crackdown on widespread demonstrations for political and economic rights, at the start of anti-government protests in Bahrain, at the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring.
And it is not only Al Wefaq on the chopping block as the government continues its crackdown on all forms of dissent. Prominent members of other opposition groups also remain in detention whilst being prosecuted over similar charges. Secular opposition figure Ibrahim Sharif is facing charges of attempting to topple the government, promoting political change through force and inciting hatred in a speech he gave last month honoring a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead by police. The list extends to include jailed human rights defenders, journalists, photographers, medics, sport figures and thousands of regular citizens all locked up in overcrowded prison cells.
The Bahraini regime has a tarnished record of “criminalizing dissent“.
Is it surprising that a leading figure in Al Wefaq is slammed with terror-linked charges upon return from Iran? Like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria, Iran is home to holy Islamic shrines visited by tens of thousands of Bahraini Shia every year. It's also home to famous Islamic universities. Instead of easing its strangle on freedoms, however, the Bahraini government recently announced it is to “regulate” travel to conflict-zones, in particular, with broader travel regulations to individuals under 18.
— Zaid Benjamin (@zaidbenjamin) August 24, 2015
This could not only mean further tightening on religious freedom and freedom of movement, but it could be seen as an intention to isolate the Bahraini Shia from their ideological counterparts in the region and criminalize any attempt made to break this new barrier.
Human right defenders are blaming the US for being too placate with its longstanding “strategic ally”, Bahrain, which is home to the US's fifth fleet. In June, the US moved to lift its ban on military aid to Bahrain citing “meaningful reforms” even as the political stalemate deepens. With the leaders of the “tolerated” opposition which was once on the dialogue tables now being shoved into jail one after the other, there doesn't seem to be a glimpse of a political settlement in the horizon.