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The New Arab

Bahrain will not release imprisoned opposition chief

Salman's arrest in December 2014 sparked protests in Shia-majority Bahrain [AFP]

Date of publication: 3 October, 2016

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Bahrain's top court has refused to release Shia opposition chief cleric Ali Salman, who is serving a nine-year jail term on charges of inciting hatred and forceful regime change.

Bahrain's top court rejected on Monday a request to release Shia opposition chief cleric Ali Salman, who is serving a nine-year jail term on charges of inciting hatred and forceful regime change.

The head of the al-Wefaq group had been sentenced in July 2015 to four years in jail after being convicted of inciting hatred in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom.

In May, his jail term was doubled to nine years after reversing an earlier acquittal on charges of calling for regime change by force. 

The court of cassation set 17 October as a new date to examine Salman's sentence.

His arrest in December 2014 sparked protests in Shia-majority Bahrain.

Salman's jail sentence is part of a crackdown on the Gulf nation's largest opposition group, which has been dissolved by a court order over accusations of "harbouring terrorism".

Al-Wefaq had the largest parliamentary bloc before its MPs walked out in February 2011 in protest to a deadly crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests.

The crackdown on the group has drawn criticism from UN chief Ban Ki-Moon and Bahrain's allies in Washington, as well as rights groups.

In August last year, Human Rights Watch condemned Salman's "unfair trial", calling on the Bahraini authorities to release him without delay.

"The manifest unfairness of the trial means the authorities should release Salman immediately," HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said at the time.

"The behavior of the court in Sheikh Ali Salman's case shows again that Bahrain's justice system has been incapable of delivering justice," she added.

Hundreds have been arrested and put on trial since security forces backed by Saudi-led troops crushed in March 2011 month-long protests that demanded democratic reforms.

Crackdown on opposition

Hundreds of Shias have been arrested and put on trial since security forces backed by Saudi-led troops crushed in March 2011 month-long protests that demanded democratic reforms.

Authorities have also stripped at least 261 people of their citizenship since 2012, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, including the country's Shia spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassem.

Last month, the US urged Bahrain to immediately release prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who is in prison over a tweet criticising Manama's participation in the Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.

"We call on the government of Bahrain to release him [Rajab] immediately," State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said.

"We have concerns about the state of human rights in general in Bahrain and we're engaging with the government ... on all these issues."

The State Department's statements come just two days after The New York Times published a letter by Rajab, in which he said he was facing prosecution for exposing human rights abuses in Bahrain and criticising the war in Yemen.

The behavior of the court in Sheikh Ali Salman's case shows again that Bahrain's justice system has been incapable of delivering justice.
- HRW

Following the publication of the letter, Bahraini authorities filed new charges against Rajab, for "publishing a column in a foreign newspaper in which he deliberately broadcast news, statements and false rumors that undermine the kingdom's prestige and stature."

HRW also joined a growing chorus of international rights groups calling on Bahrain to release Rajab and other detained activists.

"Bahrain keeping Nabeel Rajab in a prison cell for criticising abuses shows the ruling Al Khalifa family's deep contempt for basic human rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"States that claim to support peaceful activism should use the Human Rights Council session to demand Rajab's immediate release. And they should push Bahrain to lift the restrictions placed on Nabeel's colleagues."

Rajab, who faces up to 15 years in prison as his trial resumes this week, was arrested on 2 April 2015 after posting comments on Twitter criticising Bahrain's participation in the war in Yemen.

He was released on 13 July the same year, but prosecutors did not close the cases and ordered his re-arrest on 13 June 2016.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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