The trial of Bahrain's top opposition leader on charges of promoting a violent overthrow of the island nation's political system has been adjourned till May 20, in a case that has riled his supporters and heightened unrest in the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab kingdom.
Wednesday's trial of Sheikh Ali Salman, head of al-Wefaq Islamic Society, heard testimony from key defence witnesses. Salman, who has been remanded in custody till his next hearing, is being tried on multiple offences, including inciting a "change of government by force, spreading hatred among a segment of society and insulting the interior ministry".
Salman was arrested last December after leading a protest rally against parliamentary elections in November, which his party boycotted. He denied the charges during his first court hearing on January 28.
"We strongly believe that Sheikh Ali Salman never had the intention of calling for the overthrow of the regime by force and never called for violence, because he is not convinced of such an approach," said Jalila Al Sayed, one of Salman's multiple lawyers. In a previous interview with Al Jazeera, Abdullah al-Shamlawi, another of Salman's lawyers, said the case against his client was politically motivated and lacked legitimate legal basis.
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At a previous hearing, Salman noted: "I have been working in politics since 1998, when people secretly called to overthrow the regime, and I did not take that path and was on the opposing side. I always stood alongside the government and backed the constitution. I was even a former member of parliament."
Asked whether the continued legal action against Salman could hamper the relative stability in the small island kingdom of 1.3 million people, Adel al-Muawda, a member of Bahrain's upper house of parliament, said Bahrain had every right to investigate Salman, calling it "a matter of law and order".
Although the trial may appear to be provocative, authorities have little choice but to hold it, since Manama is only legitimate if it applies the law.
"Disturbances will happen, of course, by people who do not like for law and order to take its place," Muawda said.
According to Mohammed Al Sayed, a spokesperson for moderate group Citizens for Bahrain,several of the charges against Salman "are of a serious nature and deserve to be examined".
"However, it is up to the courts to pronounce on his guilt or innocence and not us or those taking to the streets," he told Al Jazeera.
Al-Wefaq was founded in 2002, a year after Bahrain announced political reforms, in which the country became a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and an independent judiciary.
The leading opposition political society has long complained of political and economic discrimination by the government against the Shia population, including being shut out of certain professions - charges Bahraini authorities have continuously denied.
Justin Gengler, a political researcher at Qatar University who completed the first mass survey of political attitudes in Bahrain, told Al Jazeera that the government has the legality of the constitution behind it to investigate Salman after his party decided to boycott the elections.
"From the government's perspective, it had every right to pursue legal actions against Sheikh Ali Salman because as al-Wefaq decided to boycott the parliamentary elections, they therefore forfeited their right to act in any political capacity and therefore was no longer immune to such investigations," Gengler told Al Jazeera.
Political parties are officially banned under the existing Bahraini constitution. Instead, Bahrain allows "political societies", under which al-Wefaq was considered legitimate until sidelining itself this past November, after which a Bahraini court banned the group from political activities.
"Although the trial may appear to be provocative, authorities have little choice but to hold it, since Manama is only legitimate if it applies the law. It must, consequently, allow the process to go through, and it is up to the judiciary to be impartial," Joseph Kechichian, an expert on Gulf affairs, told Al Jazeera.
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Amnesty International released a scathing report last week accusing Bahrain of carrying out rampant human rights abuses against opposition activists despite promises of meaningful reform.
"Four years on from the uprising, repression is widespread, and rampant abuses by the security forces continue. Bahrain's authorities must prove that the promises of reform they have made are more than empty rhetoric," said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy head.
The Bahraini government promptly rejected the claims, stressing that the report relied on a series of anonymous allegations. "The government is disappointed that despite receiving Bahrain's full cooperation during Amnesty's visit and preparation of its report, in its hurry to publish the report for media attention, Amnesty did not reflect important clarifications provided by the government on substantial points of fact," the government said in a statement.
Bahrain, which bans protests and gatherings not licensed by the government, quelled a 2011 opposition uprising with help from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, but sporadic protests and small-scale clashes persist, while bomb attacks have increased since mid-2012.
Bahrain's interior ministry has frequently accused al-Wefaq of maintaining ties with Iran. A series of official statements made by Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said Bahrain's arrest of Salman would "increase dangers and threats" within the country.
"Those who dream of overthrowing the monarchy and setting up an Islamic republic a la Iran will be disappointed," Kechichian told Al Jazeera. "A middle ground exists between both extreme positions, which ought to focus on the welfare of Bahrainis, both economic as well as political, that would not threaten internal stability."
Source: Al Jazeera