Is the acquittal of Ali Salman a breakthrough in Bahrain?

The recent acquittal of a Shia opposition leader could be an indication that Bahrain might be heading towards reform.

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    A woman holds a placard with an image of Sheikh Ali Salman during a demonstration against his persecution in Bilad Al Qadeem, south of Manama, Bahrain on December 29, 2014 [Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters]
    A woman holds a placard with an image of Sheikh Ali Salman during a demonstration against his persecution in Bilad Al Qadeem, south of Manama, Bahrain on December 29, 2014 [Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters]

    Hope is a commodity in short supply but there are signs that in the Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain, hope for an end to political stalemate between the country's Shia Muslim majority population and its Sunni ruling family may not be misplaced.

    The history of Bahrain since independence has been one of persistent cycles of reform and repression, intrinsically linked to one another. When reform goes too far and threatens the position of the ruling family, repression kicks in which in turn goes too far and a process of reform begins anew.

    The acquittal on June 21 of Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the country's largest political society al-Wefaq, is an indication that the cycle of reform may be back in play. Sheikh Salman had been charged, along with two others, of conspiring with Qatar in 2011 to overthrow the government.

    From repression to reform and back again

    Bahrain secured independence from Britain in 1971, with the first parliament elected in 1973. But after it refused to approve a draconian state security law, it was dissolved just two years later. 

    The then and still current prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, together with his brother Isa, the emir, ruled with an iron fist. They were aided by Ian Henderson, a Scotsman who ran the state security apparatus with such ruthless efficiency, he earned the sobriquet "Butcher of Bahrain" from regime opponents.

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    The coup attempt in the early 1980s and the uprising in the 1990s calling for democratic reform led to periods of intense repression. Throughout that time, the prime minister continued to consolidate his power and wealth. It was only when his brother Isa died and his son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, took over as emir in 1999 that Khalifa bin Salman faced a challenge to his authority. 

    That challenge took the shape of a reform movement that saw a state of emergency, in place since 1975, lifted and the state security law abolished. Political opponents and human rights activists were released from jail and others allowed and indeed encouraged to return from exile under a general amnesty. Restrictions on the media were loosened. 

    In February 2001, a referendum was held in which the Bahrainis voted overwhelmingly in support of the National Action Charter, a roadmap towards the creation of a constitutional monarchy. In 2002, Bahrain adopted a new constitution along the lines of the charter's provisions, with Hamad bin Isa declaring himself king.

    For the next several years, though the Shia continued to feel marginalised and discriminated against, the reform agenda was the order of the day. It was, in effect, the weapon by which the prime minister and his coterie were held in check. Hamad and his eldest son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, were the temporary winners of the power struggle along with progressive Bahrainis. 

    The Arab Spring and the events of February and March 2011 saw the cycle of repression return with a vengeance. Peaceful calls for a faster pace of reform gained huge support in the kingdom across sectarian lines. Hardliners within the ruling family, and principally the prime minister, saw this as a major threat.

    They had in their minds the role that popular protests had played in the toppling of dictators in North Africa, while Saudi Arabia feared that the instability in Bahrain could turn into an opportunity for Iranian influence to grow. Demonstrations in the capital, Manama, were crushed with force and with the intervention of Saudi and Emirati troops. Khalifa bin Salman took the opportunity to recoup lost ground. 

    Since then, thousands have been jailed, freedom of expression has been suppressed, hundreds of Bahrainis have had their citizenship stripped and the majority Shia population lives in fear in what has become for them a police state.

    But now there are signs that the cycle of repression may be coming to an end. 

    Signs of reform 

    The first and probably strongest indication was the acquittal of Sheikh Ali Salman. The case was based on a heavily doctored audio recording of a phone conversation between the sheikh and the then-prime minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassim. 

    In similar cases, weak or made-up evidence, as well as confessions obtained under torture have not prevented numerous convictions. Indeed, Sheikh Salman is currently serving a prison sentence on other trumped-up charges. But it wasn't the weakness of the prosecution case that determined the outcome of this trial.

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    The judicial system in Bahrain is deeply politicised so such a decision could not have been reached without a clear signal from the government. It is not a signal that would have come from the hardliners who include the long-serving justice minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa. He has presided over the jailing of the leaders of the opposition and of human rights activists, notably Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, and the banning of political societies, including al-Wefaq.

    It is, therefore, possible that the reform wing within the royal family is responsible for the acquittal. Behind the scenes pressure from Bahrain's allies, principally the US, will have strengthened the reformers' hand. Tellingly, when the Bahraini public prosecutor announced that he would appeal the acquittal, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert was emphatic: "We urge Bahraini prosecutors not to pursue an appeal of the judge's ruling," and she added, "we repeat our call on the Government of Bahrain to release Ali Salman from prison and grant relief from his previous conviction."

    The second indication that change is in the wind has to do with the diminished presence of the prime minister and his alleged marginalisation. 

    This may be explained in part by the fact that both the Emiratis and the Saudis who between them are shoring up Bahrain's battered economy are said to have expressed their wish that the world's longest-serving prime minister should be retired. 

    Finally, al-Wefaq though banned, has just produced a declaration that in its language and tone is remarkably close to a document that the crown prince released in 2008, called Vision 2030 (not to be confused with a document of the same name released by the Saudis in 2016.) 

    Wefaq's Declaration of Principles and Common Interests renounces all forms of violence and calls for a pathway to a constitutional monarchy while "preserving the social fabric of the Kingdom of Bahrain to achieve civil peace, coexistence, tolerance and sustainable stability needed to promote development". 

    Vision 2030, though it is a plan for economic development, speaks of "a just, thriving society, a safe and secure environment [in which] Bahraini nationals and residents enjoy a sustainable and attractive living environment." It also speaks of a "progressive, stable government" and "fairness in society".

    The Wefaq declaration could be used to call for dialogue to break a political stalemate that has severely damaged the Bahraini economy. There have been reports circulating that some representatives of the ruling family have already reached out unofficially to the opposition.

    Serious roadblocks remain. Members of banned political societies have been barred from contesting seats in November's parliamentary elections. Many human rights activists and political oppositionists are jailed.

    Shia communities are under intense and constant police surveillance and their senior religious authority Sheikh Isa Qassim is effectively under house arrest. Seven years of ongoing protest and repression have created a huge trust deficit between the opposition and the government.

    Still, at a time and in a country where there is so much despair that a solution will ever be found, a sliver of hope, no matter how thin, may be just enough to show the way forward towards dialogue and reconciliation. That can't be a bad thing.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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