On November 4th, 2018, Ali Salman was sentenced to life in prison by a Bahraini court for espionage.
Ali Salman was born in 1965 in a suburb of Manama, the capital of Bahrain. In 1994, he led a popular movement pushing for the restoration of parliament in Bahrain, and was quickly arrested. A year later, in 1995, he was deported to Dubai and then moved to London to continue his activism. Six years later, in 2001, he was able to return to Bahrain after King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced political reform measures, which included a general amnesty for Salman.
Ali Salman went on to become the Secretary General of the Bahraini opposition party, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society (Al-Wefaq).
The Sunni Al-Khalifa royal family has ruled Bahrain for over 200 years, however, Arab Spring protests introduced unrest, particularly among the Shi’ite majority. In Bahrain, the protests were sparked by the Shiite majority demanding increased representation and reforms from the Sunni controlled government. Al-Wefaq was the main Shi-ite opposition party, and, as its leader, Ali Salman called for a series of democratic reforms, including a constitutional monarchy and a democratically elected prime minister. Prior to the Arab Spring protests, Al-Wefaq had the largest bloc in the Bahraini parliament, but when the protests were suppressed, half of the members resigned.
Following this, in 2014, Salman led a protest against the parliamentary election because of the government’s failure to institute the reforms for which Salman and Al-Wefaq were pushing. He subsequently gave speeches in which he spoke about the opposition’s dedication to reaching power in Bahrain, peacefully achieving the demands of the Arab Spring protests, and bringing those responsible for human rights violations to account. He was then arrested, convicted, and sentenced to four years in prison for the charges of inciting a change of regime by non-peaceful means, inciting hatred of a segment of society against another, inciting others to break the law, and insulting the Ministry of Interior.
In July of 2016, a Bahraini court dissolved Al-Wefaq after having suspended its activities, closed its offices, and frozen its assets.
In 2017, Ali Salman’s second trial began on charges of espionage related to his recorded phone calls to the Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2011. The official charges were of “exchanging intelligence information with Qatar…[to] undermine [Bahrain’s] political and economic status as well as its national interest to overthrow the political system.”
Though the case pertains to conversations held in 2011, the charges were only levied against Salman after Bahrain cut ties with Qatar in 2017, after having accused Qatar of being too close to Iran. At the time of the conversations, the Qatari government was openly trying to mediate Bahrain’s crisis following the Arab Spring protests. Salman’s supporters allege that Bahraini authorities have edited and manipulated the communications to appear criminal. Despite being acquitted of the charges on June 21st, 2018, the prosecution appealed the decision and Ali Salman, along with fellow opposition leaders Ali al-Aswad and Hassan Sultan, were sentenced to life in prison in November. The prosecutor stated that the men were arrested for “acts of hostility” and “communicating with Qatari officials… to overthrow constitutional order”. Al-Wefaq claims that the charges were the Bahraini government’s attempts to malign the opposition and prolong Salman’s imprisonment.
A statement from the Bahraini government stated, “Ali Salman’s case relates to criminal charges, specifically incitement of hatred, as well as inciting violence. The charges and subsequent trial are wholly unrelated to any political views he may hold.”
However, the charges against Salman come amidst a government crackdown on dissent, which has included measures such as the banning of members from dissolved opposition groups from running for parliament, banning protests and unlicensed gatherings, outlawing opposition parties entirely, and jailing government critics.
Amnesty International has called for Salman’s release, referring to him as a ‘prisoner of conscience’ and stating that, “this verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent.”
Bahrain responded by denying these claims, and saying that “will not tolerate violent attacks or incitement to violence committed under the guise of free speech and peaceful protest. It is the government’s duty to protect citizens, residents, and visitors alike and the government makes no apology for doing so”.
Salman and his lawyer plan to appeal the sentence.
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