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Bahrain in major new crackdown on opposition

Opposition leader Ali Salman is currently serving a nine-year jail term for inciting violence [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 June, 2016

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Bahrain suspended activities by the main Shia-dominated opposition group on Tuesday as part of a crackdown in the Sunni-ruled kingdom that has raised concerns among rights defenders and in Washington

Bahrain suspended all activities by the main Shia-dominated opposition group on Tuesday as part of a crackdown in the Sunni-ruled kingdom that has raised concerns among rights defenders and in Washington.

A court suspended the Al-Wefaq group pending a verdict on dissolving it altogether, the justice ministry said, accusing the bloc of breaking the law.

The decision came a day after security forces rearrested leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, drawing a complaint from the United States.

The court also ordered Al-Wefaq offices closed and its funds frozen, said a justice ministry statement published by the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA).

Al-Wefaq draws most of its support from the Shia majority in the small kingdom across the Gulf from Shia Iran.

The bloc's chief, Shia cleric Ali Salman, is currently serving a nine-year jail term for inciting violence after a court last month more than doubled his original sentence.

Salman's arrest in December 2014 sparked protests in a country already rocked by a Shia-led uprising that erupted in February 2011.

Tuesday's ruling followed a justice ministry request for Al-Wefaq to be dissolved for alleged illegal activity.

The bloc was accused of offering a haven for "terrorism, radicalisation, and violence" and opening the way for "foreign interference" in the kingdom's affairs, the ministry said.

This was a reference to Iran, which Bahrain accuses of fomenting unrest on its soil by backing the Shiite opposition.

Al-Wefaq will be unable to operate until a verdict is issued on dissolving it, BNA reported.

A judicial source told AFP that a court will convene on October 6 to investigate the case.

The justice ministry said its move against Al-Wefaq was part of a drive to "combat extremism ... and protect society."

In October 2014, the administrative court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating the law on associations.

Political parties are banned in Bahrain, as in other Gulf Arab monarchies, so Al-Wefaq has the status of an association.

The Washington-based group Human Rights First in a statement Tuesday called Al-Wefaq's suspension "part of an alarming new crackdown by the government

'Alarming new crackdown'

The Washington-based group Human Rights First in a statement Tuesday called Al-Wefaq's suspension "part of an alarming new crackdown by the government, designed to eliminate all remaining opposition in the country."

"The Bahraini government seems determined to kill all avenues of peaceful dissent. This is a dangerous course, and is likely to fuel extremism and deepen political instability," said the group's Brian Dooley.

"Bahrain has targeted leading human rights figures and opposition leaders in recent weeks; today's move is a major statement of intent by the regime that any prospect of reform is over."

After activist Rajab was taken back into custody, his lawyer said on Twitter Tuesday his case has been referred to the public prosecution service.

Rajab is being held for one week pending investigation on charges of "spreading false information", Mohammed al-Jishi said.

The 51-year-old was detained in 2014 for tweets deemed insulting to the authorities before his release on health grounds.

Rajab heads the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has led anti-government marches. He previously served two years in jail for taking part in unauthorised protests.

Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been shaken by unrest since security forces crushed the 2011 protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

Washington, which had called for Rajab's release during previous detentions, complained directly to the government again on Monday.

"We're deeply concerned," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "We do not at this point know what charges have been leveled against him."

"We don't believe anyone should be put in prison or prosecuted for engaging in peaceful expression or assembly."

Rajab's rearrest comes a week after another leading opposition activist, Zainab al-Khawaja, fled the country following her release from jail on "humanitarian grounds."

Human Rights First on Tuesday urged the U.S. government "to hold its ally Bahrain accountable for its human rights abuses."

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