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August 12, 2016

Bahrain Targets Clerics in New Wave of Attacks

This is a cross-post from The Huffington Post.

Bahrain’s Sunni-led government continues to attack the country’s leading Shia clerics. In a new development yesterday, Sheikh Maytham Al Salman has been summoned for questioning to the Ministry of Interior on Sunday August 14.

Al Salman an internationally-recognized interfaith leader, and an expert at Columbia University's Global Freedom of Expression initiative. He has already been targeted several times this year by the authorities, charged with politically-motivated, defamation-related offenses.

His passport has also been withheld, which acts essentially as a travel ban that prevented him from a fellowship program due to start in June at Stanford University,  awarded in recognition of “the significant contributions that he has made to build more tolerant societies to counter violence and extremism in the Middle East.”

Sheikh Al Salman coordinates a group of clerics and other religious leaders from across the Middle East to counter hate speech and sectarianism, a project that has been encouraged by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He’s exactly the sort of civil society leader Bahrain needs to be playing a major role in finding a way out of its political crisis.

But this work is not without significant danger. There are real fears that Al Salman will face arrest on Sunday and a period of prolonged detention. The United States should speak up about his case before then, and outline what consequences there will be should Bahrain’s leaders continue down the self-destructive path of recent weeks. 

Also on Sunday Bahrain's most senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, whose citizenship was recently stripped, is due to stand trial. He is accused by the government of money laundering. His supporters have mounted a sit-in protest near his house in Duraz.

This targeting of Shia religious leaders clearly fuels Bahrain’s polarization and undermines efforts to combat sectarianism. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report for 2016 noted “an increase in the number of interrogations, detentions, and arbitrary arrests of Shi’a Muslims, including clerics, for peaceful protests and criticizing the government’s human rights and religious freedom record.”

The Obama Administration should be doing more to prevent this. The country’s military is armed, equipped, and trained by the United States yet remains virtually an exclusively Sunni force. The State Department should withhold further support for the security forces until significant progress has been made to integrate the country’s majority Shia population into the police and army.

Absent consequences from its powerful international allies the Bahraini regime seems bent on smothering political opponents, human right activists, and Shia clerics. The U.S. government should be horrified at what’s happening and react publicly and forcefully. A visa ban for any official credibly linked to human rights abuses would be a start. Support for the bipartisan legislation in Congress proposing a ban on the sale of small arms to Bahrain until a series of reforms to address religious discrimination and other human rights issues have been fully implemented would be helpful too.

Sheikh Al Salman rightly notes how “human rights defenders, activists and media professionals remain at risk of stigmatization, intimidation and even reprisals by State and non-State actors, including for their work on the promotion of tolerance and non-sectarian policies.” If Bahrain is to pull itself out of this crisis, it must stop the harassment, arrests and jailing of its civil society figures. Sunday is another major test for the regime, and for Washington.