Middle East

Bahrain opposition leadership 'systematically targeted'

Ali Salman arrives at a police station in Bahrain for questioning (3 November 2013)
Image caption Ali Salman said imprisoning peaceful opposition leaders would help hardliners

The head of the main Shia political society in Bahrain has told the BBC that the opposition leadership is being systematically targeted by the state.

Sheikh Ali Salman of Wefaq has been charged with insulting the interior ministry through an exhibition about alleged human rights abuses by police.

His deputy, Khalil Marzook, is on trial for inciting youth violence and trying to overthrow the Sunni-led government.

Mr Salman said the allegations against them both were politically motivated.

"Khalil and the Wefaq party have always advocated a peaceful path to democracy and condemn violence," he insisted.

But the Bahraini government said the opposition had taken "a stance that risks the security of the people and the whole society".

Promised reforms

In February 2011, many Bahrainis inspired by the Arab Spring gathered at the prominent Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama calling for democratic reforms.

Many were from the majority Shia community, which has long complained of being marginalised by the Sunni royal family.

The protests were quashed by the authorities the following month.

International condemnation prompted King Hamad al-Khalifa to set up the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which issued several recommendations.

These included the prosecution of security forces personnel responsible for torture and the deaths of detainees, the release prisoners of conscience, and the reinstatement of dismissed Shia workers.

Image caption Wefaq advocates a peaceful path to democracy, Ali Salman insists

The king accepted the recommendations, but only some have been implemented.

Police reforms have seen a unit set up to investigate alleged wrongdoing, a new chief of police appointed, and CCTV cameras installed in interrogation cells.

'Clear plan'

However, Ali Salman says this is all a whitewash.

"There is no effect on the ground from these small steps," he told the BBC.

"All these people working in this new organisation are part of the regime. They are all Sunnis, they are all from the interior ministry and they continue to take their orders from the interior minister.

"The torture continues, unfair trials continue," he added. "Nearly 3,000 people are in jail and the numbers increase all the time."

The government says it is fighting terrorism and toughened the country's anti-terrorism laws after a bomb attack outside a Sunni mosque in July.

But the opposition says the new law is being wrongly used to step up the crackdown on the opposition.

Mr Salman said he believed the government was now planning to imprison or exile the entire opposition leadership.

"The authorities have charged me because they say this revolution museum is against the interior ministry. And because of this they arrested me, interrogated me and then charged me. Not for anything else," he said.

"But the idea is very clear. The authorities are saying we can put any one of you in jail whenever we want.

"And this is their plan, to put all the opposition under pressure, target the leadership and put us in jail or force us out of the country or take away our citizenship."

Mr Salman warned that if they jailed peaceful opposition leaders from groups such as Wefaq, only hardliners would remain and that would lead to more and more violence.

In a statement, Information Minister Sameera Rajab told the BBC: "It was expected that the opposition would co-operate with the authorities in Bahrain throughout the kingdom's efforts to counter terrorism. However, that did not happen.

"The opposition took a stance that risks the security of the people and the whole society."

"As a result, terrorists who are trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, took advantage and threatened the safety of civilians in Bahrain."