Bahrain Tightens Grip on Opposition Leaders and Freedom of Expression
Last Sunday Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Bahrain's main opposition group, the Al Wefaq Society, was charged with insulting authorities. The move signals deepening repression from the regime, which has generally tolerated Al Wefaq over other opposition groups. The regime is supposed to be engaged in talks with Al Wefaq, which advocates non-violent methods as it seeks a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen by a democratically elected parliament. If Salman is put on trial, it could open up new rifts in the country.
According to his lawyer, Salman received a summons for questioning from the public prosecutor's office on November 3 and was interrogated for six hours regarding Al-Wefaq’s launch of an art exhibition last week. In his speech, Salman said “in this modest exhibition I think that those who come and visit will leave understanding what the Bahraini people have experienced as has been recreated artistically and simplistically.” The exhibit depicts torture and protesters gunned down by security forces, and includes samples of riot-control munitions and tear gas canisters.
Riot police raided the museum-style hall two days after the opening and said the displays incited "hatred" even though most of the abuses depicted have been reported in international media or in the government-commissioned Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report on the unrest. The public prosecutor ordered confiscation of the artwork.
Bahraini government spokeswoman Samira Rajab said that Sheikh Salman was investigated on charges of insulting a statutory body, namely the Ministry of Interior, as the artwork "alleging policemen’s systematic use of inhuman practices and human rights violations” were an affront to the police. She continued that at the opening ceremony Sheikh Salman, along with other members of the society “delivered instigative speeches packed with lies and allegations.”
The summons comes just over a week after Al-Wefaq's deputy leader, Khalil Marzooq, was released from jail at the opening of his trial for inciting terrorism, now postponed until November 18. Al Marzooq’s arrest prompted Al Wefaq to suspend its participation in talks with the government.
In another signal that the Bahraini government is tightening its already firm grip on freedom of expression and association, the Justice Ministry recently announced that all contacts between political societies and diplomatic missions, consulates or foreign organizations or representatives of foreign governments must be done in coordination with the foreign ministry. Under the decision, all meetings should be held in the presence of a representative from the Bahraini government, the foreign ministry or any other party the ministry selects.
The United States remains a supporter of Bahrain's leadership, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. But the tough measures against protesters and widespread arrests have raised concern in Washington. In his annual U.N. address in late September, President Obama lamented Bahrain’s intensifying sectarianism. The U.S. government should apply pressure on the Bahrain government to engage with peaceful political leaders both in and out of jail and to meet with opposition figures openly.