The trial of Bahrain’s top opposition leader began on Wednesday, in a case that has seen tensions flare after the government charged him with multiple offences, including inciting a “change of government by force, spreading hatred among a segment of society and insulting the interior ministry”.
Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, appeared in court at the begining of the trial. Salman , who denied all charges, was allowed to briefly meet with his family before the trial was adjourned to February 25.
Salman’s arrest late last year has sparked near-daily demonstrations from his supporters, who are demanding his release.
Bahrain’s public prosecution said this week that Salman has been presented with evidence that underpinned the charges, “including recordings of public speeches that promoted political change, confronting state authorities, calls to stage unlawful protests, in addition to incitement to non-compliance with the law”.
During the initial proceedings of the case, authorities said Salman had previously made public speeches that spread “extremist views encouraging the use of force against the kingdom’s authorities, and referring to such acts as a religious duty”.
Nearly two weeks earlier, Bahrain also arrested, and later sentenced, another al-Wefaq leader on charges of “disrupting elections”.
Sayed Jameel Kadhim was sentenced to six months in jail after he accused Bahrain’s government on Twitter of “paying” candidates who ran during the November parliamentary elections to stand for office.
Al-Wefaq has long complained of political and economic discrimination by the government against the Shia population, including being shut out from certain professions – charges which authorities have continuously denied.
For me, there is no basis. We are crossing our fingers and there are optimistic chances for a release. But the actuality of that happening is very far.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from the capital Manama by phone, one of Salman’s lawyers, Abdullah al-Shamlawi, said the case against his client was politically motivated and had no legal basis. “For me, there is no basis. We are crossing our fingers and there are optimistic chances for a release. But the actuality of that happening is very far,” Shamlawi said.
A defence panel made up of five lawyers accused state officials of “attempting to turn public opinion against [their] client”. They released a joint statement adding that “the minister [of interior] obviously linked the timing of the charges against Sheikh Salman with the end of the elections as well as a number of events in which al-Wefaq called on voters to boycott the elections.
“This is clear evidence that the trial is politically motivated,” they wrote.
Adel al-Muawda, a member of Bahrain’s upper house of parliament, disagreed with al-Wefaq’s statements during a televised debate on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story.
“It is a matter of law and order,” Muawda told Al Jazeera. “[Salman] isn’t wanted because he belongs to this or that group… I think any country has the right to know and ask [about] the happenings in their own country.”
According to Justin Gengler, a political researcher at Qatar University who completed the first mass survey of political attitudes in Bahrain: “Firstly, since al-Wefaq boycotted the elections, they’ve automatically forfeited their right to act in political capacities as they have no candidates in office today.”
Under existing Bahraini laws, political parties are officially banned, as is the case in the rest of the Arab Gulf countries. Instead, Bahrain allows “political societies”. The law clearly forbids these societies from aligning themselves or receiving funds from any political group outside of the country.
Bahrain’s interior ministry has openly accused al-Wefaq of maintaining ties with Iran.Tehran repeatedly denied any meddling in Bahrain’s affairs. However, a series of official statements, in response to Salman’s arrest, has been viewed by Manama as a direct Iranian interference. Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Jawad Zarif, said Bahrain’s arrest of Salman would ‘increase dangers and threats’.
Gengler added that it is much more difficult for al-Wefaq to bargain politically with international actors given the current geopolitical climate in the region.
“In the past, they could have asked international forces to pressure the Bahraini government, but the country is under less scrutiny today because superpowers like the United States and United Kingdom need Bahrain’s military bases to fight fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” Gengler said.
Bahrain has been home to US forces since 1948, and will soon also host a British Royal Navy base after the UK signed a deal with Bahrain last month.
Salman’s arrest has triggered regional reaction. Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah openly criticised Bahrain’s detention of Salman, saying in a televised address: “The people of Bahrain have legitimate rights. They decided to launch a peaceful revolution, contrary to other movements in the world.”
This prompted an angry reaction not only from Bahrain, but also its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) counterparts, with the United Arab Emirates summoning the Lebanese ambassador over Nasrallah’s comments.
“These statements are an unacceptable interference in Bahrain’s affairs, highlighting that need for the Lebanese government to take deterrent legal action to ensure that such acts will not be repeated,” said Tarek Ahmad al-Haidan, the UAE’s assistant foreign minister for International Organisation Affairs.
Bahrain bans protests and gatherings not licensed by the government. The government quelled a 2011 opposition uprising with help from Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, but sporadic protests and small-scale clashes persist, while bomb attacks have increased since mid-2012.