Al-Wefaq Society Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman presented an overview of the situation in Bahrain, particularly highlighting the religious and economic discrimination practiced by government authorities against the country’s Shia majority.
During a lengthy interview with Press TV, Al-Wefaq Society Secretary-General Sheikh Ali Salman presented an overview of the situation in Bahrain, particularly highlighting the religious and economic discrimination practiced by government authorities against the country’s Shia majority.
Further emphasizing the deteriorating human rights situation in the island kingdom, the prominent opposition leader said that: “The civil service also punishes clerks for participating in political activities”.
The following is the full interview:
After the revolution in 2011, the regime promised to introduce some reforms. So has anything actually changed since then?
Salman: In the assessment of the opposition and according to the report of Mr. [Mahmoud] Bassiouni, [the head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)] and human rights organizations, certain actions have led to a deterioration of the situation.
For example, laws have been issued that are to be oppressive like the terrorism law, judicial laws, laws which prevent freedom of expression including protesting in the capital, and punishing parents because their children participated in peaceful protests. The civil service also punishes clerks for participating in political activities and there are other oppressive laws now including legalizing revoking nationality from citizens, which is the opposite of international norms.
In reality, they have fired the few Shias who held a position in the government. According to Mr. Bassiouni’s report, 4,800 citizens were sacked from their jobs but the number is actually higher because the sacking continued on an individual basis even after the report.
Also, Shia and opposition members don’t get subsequently hired in different jobs and this isn’t only in the military field, but also in civilian fields like health and education. And they’re brought foreign workers to take these jobs from the citizens. So the reforms that they are talking about mean that we have 3,000 people detained in Bahraini prisons. More than 150 people have been sentenced to life in prison and two are sentenced to death. There were actually more death sentences than this but they were eventually converted to life sentences, but still two remain on death row.
These are backward steps. And they are not just claimed by the opposition but from independent human rights organizations and Mr. Bassiouni’s report.
The government refuses to allow international observers to come and observe what is happening in Bahrain. They restrict the activities of the media and impose restrictions on human rights organizations and give limited licenses in limited periods and also only allow limited programs which have been put under official control.
The situation is deteriorating more than it is improving politically and socially and on top of that the economy –which is tied to employment and economic freedom- is causing citizens to suffer greatly.
Let’s talk about life for the average Shia citizen. What is it like for them here?
Salman: The life of a Shia citizen in Bahrain begins with the difficulty of starting a family because there’s high unemployment, low wages amongst them. He [Shia citizen] cannot find a job in the government institutions. The private sector offers jobs but with very low salaries ranging from 200 to 300 BD. So the Shia youth delay marriage as a result. Then when he gets married he has difficulties having kids because he doesn’t have a place to live or stay. He can’t rent a place so he lives with his parents and they create small rooms where the father, mother, and the children live in. And then there is the dilemma of naming his child. Despite being Shia, he avoids giving his child a Shia name because if he gives him or her a Shia name they will be punished in the future.
This could be when trying to get a job, a scholarship, or even the possibility of getting insulted at a checkpoint, police station or when traveling from Bahrain. So, the father will imagine the future of his child and realize that he will only get a job in the private sector; he will imagine the difficulties he will face in his education and that he won’t receive a scholarship. Even if he gets 98 to 99 percent, a scholarship is not guaranteed. However, another citizen with an 80 percent mark can get a scholarship because he is from a different sect.
He will struggle to find a good job; Even if he is a doctor, he will be jobless, or he will have a very low-skilled job. So, the regime has created a system so Shias never get good jobs. They will become cleaners or do manual labor. The high position jobs are reserved for the respected Sunni sects or migrant workers the government brings from outside to occupy these positions.
In all situations he will live in fear of getting detained. Either his father is arrested or his mother is arrested, or he will be fired. His father will be fired or he will be unemployed. He will always live in economic hardship or in fear of getting arrested. So starting from age 12 or 13, he will face the threat of arrest until he reaches the age of 60 or 70. So he will live in fear of arrest since he is born until he dies. This is in summary, the situation of the Shia in Bahrain.
And how difficult is it for them to practice their faith here in Bahrain?
Salman: From the old times Bahrain was a small island known for its love of the Ahlul Bait. When the Al-Khalifa came to Bahrain, they saw people not working during the ten days leading to Ashura. Life and all activities change in the country during these ten days. But now look at the many signs of oppression that exist here. The 9th and 10th of Muharram are official holidays but in the media there is no mention of Shia religious existence.
The media only focuses on the Sunni religious activities and nothing from the Shia perspective. On Fridays you will see a live broadcast of the Sunni sermons from Sunni mosques. For example, the biggest Sunni mosque al-Fatah will have a live television broadcast of the entire sermon but there is no broadcast from any Shia mosques. The official radio station will only focus on the Sunni religious school of thought. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs is controlled by Sunnis, and the official by Sunnis, and the official delegations to almost anywhere will always have a majority Sunni representation. And the religious textbooks deliver only the Sunni perspective. But not only that, the Shia belief and school of thought is clearly attacked and insulted. For example, Shia beliefs such as visiting graves or belief in the Imams from the household of the holy Prophet [Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him] are often attacked.
The Shia in Bahrain are the indigenous population so you’ll see they have lots of old mosques and religious congregation halls. But in new places like Hammad town which was established in 1982, Shias till today don’t have permission for these places. There is only one religious congregation hall in another town called Isa town and this town was established in the 60s.
In areas like East Riffa and the new Arad they are prohibited from building a congregation hall despite there being a request to build one for years. And in Hammad town there are 40 Sunni mosques and only 10 for Shias. In the Seef area, they aren’t allowed to build a mosque despite them trying to get a permit to build one for the last 10 years. The regime is not allowing them to build a mosque in a commercial area despite the fact that it is surrounded by Shia villages like Karbabad. However, our beloved Sunni brothers have a mosque in the same area. So, Shia’s are suffering as a result of these practices. They get arrested for giving Friday sermons or Ashura religious sermons.
But Shias had been living in Bahrain before the Al-Khalifa came to the country so the traditional Shia practices are still preserved because of that.
What is the police presence like in Shia villages?
Salman: Through your visit you are going to see that there are many security checkpoints around almost every Shia village. Here in the al-Bilad village, you will see a checkpoint at the entrance and it is permanent, you will see a lot of mobile checkpoints throughout the Shia villages, especially.
These checkpoints increase during the weekends, as there are many peaceful protests during this period. These checkpoints could stop any car and ask you for your identification and you could very well be beaten and arrested and this has happened to many citizens. And then on average, every Shia village has faced on a daily basis 10, 20, 30 house raids during the last three years.
According to Bassiouni’s report, during those house raids, the Shia citizens are attacked verbally and physically and they are disrespected. And after that they will accuse them of being confrontational with the policemen. An old lady died because of one such raid. Many people are annoyed because women are not even given enough time to cover themselves during house raids. Shia villages could be attacked at any time in order to arrest someone. Such acts have been happening for the last 3.5 years.
How are the clerics treated here?
Salman: There is no difference between a Shia cleric or a Shia citizen. But if a Shia cleric discusses politics or tries to spread or advocate justice in society or political equality, he will be punished on that basis. The punishment will be the result of him calling for political reform.
And what about the Shia opposition?
Salman: Shia-whether opposition or citizens- are treated as second-class citizens. They don’t have equal rights like other citizens. In terms of ranking rights in Bahrain, the royal family comes first to which the King and the Crown Prince belong, according to the constitution, the Prime Minister, who’s been in power for 43 years, also comes from this family. As well as the Interior Minister, the Defense Minister, the Justice Minister, the Finance Minister and other ministers. So all the high positions in the government are controlled by this family. Then after this you get the pro-regime families which come from the respected Sunni families who came with the Al-Khalifa when they entered Bahrain. Al-Khalifa gave them these positions on a tribal basis or to please their tribe.
Then comes the ordinary Sunni families. Then finally you get the Shia citizens in the country. This is the reality of how the country is divided. Shias are denied important positions in the government and especially in the security sector. With the exception of those who work for the government as informants. The Shia represent only 17 percent in the top government structure with many acting as ministers and deputy ministers. However, according to various sources, Shias make up 60 to 70 percent of the population.
Until the foreign naturalization process, this was a much higher figure. So this is the situation of the Shia in the country.
Let’s move on to Bahrain’s Western allies, mainly Britain. I mean, why are they turning a blind eye to the regime’s activities?
Salman: Because of the clear contradiction between the principles in the West and their interests in Bahrain, despite the fact that West believes in the protection of human rights and democracy. But when it comes to the regimes in the region such values are ignored and not discussed on a greater level because of these interests they have in the Persian Gulf. You will see very soft language from the West to the regime here and complete ignorance of the current human rights situation.
How have other countries with in the Persian Gulf help the Bahraini regime suppress the protests?
Salman: It’s not a secret that some countries have sent military troops into Bahrain like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and these forces came to the country because of the popular uprising of the people in Bahrain and not because there was a foreign intervention like they claim, but because there is a demand for democracy.
Then there’s a huge budget given to Bahrain in economic aid through the Marshall fund program by the (P)GCC, around 10 billion over 10 years since 2011. And there is clear media and very strong political support from neighborhood countries for the Bahraini regime. The regime is using this aid and support to suppress people, yet not fulfilling people’s demands, but I don’t believe it was meant for this.
However, as we understand there is a desire within Persian Gulf states, at least a few of them, to stabilize Bahrain through political agreement with the people. But the Bahraini regime and the hardliners in the regime refused any level of reform.
Moving on to the recent elections, why did your party decide to boycott them?
Salman: These elections will not bring about any democratic results and the winners of these elections will not have any legislative power. They cannot form a government, nor decide on a government, nor can the performance of a government be monitored in a serious way. The main demand of the opposition and of the majority of the people in Bahrain is to have a fully elected parliament that can have the full legislative powers and control. And the government should come from the outcome of this election but these elections are not going to create this. For this reason the opposition boycotted this election after we tried to participate in the past and to make a change through the establishment. But the fact is that it is controlled by the royal family and they appointed 40 members in the legislative council in the parliament and they also chose the government which we have no right to accept or reject.
Going back to the elections, would you say there was any manipulation that took place?
Salman: The first thing you notice when you look at the districts is that the outcome of the election will result in the pro-government and loyalists gaining the majority of the seats. However, the reality is that the majority of the people are supporting the opposition.
If we participate in the election we would gain the majority of the votes; however, we would be a minority in parliament as we would not get the equivalent seats. There was clear intimidation in the last election to increase the turnout by stamping passports and sending messages to every single household to participate in the election and forcing members of the security apparatus to participate in the election with their families.
The main newspapers in the country were also used to announce on the front pages that those who don’t participate in the election will not receive government services like housing and education and health.
This is clear intimidation which is not acceptable and also there are probably fake votes or manipulation of the votes by adding votes that do not exist especially as there is no international monitoring of the elections. And many newly illegal naturalized citizens were forces or pressured to participate in the election. In the law, any newly naturalized person has to wait for 10 years before he or she can participate in the election in accordance to the 1963 law of naturalization. For example, there was a priest who was recently naturalized and he was allowed to vote and this is a clear violation of Bahrain law.
According to the official numbers, 52 percent of people voted and the participation in the second round was at 40 percent. But we believe according to figures only 35 to 37 percent voted.
So, tell me what is Shia representation like in parliament?
Salman: There are two chambers in the Bahraini parliament. In the elected chamber, there were 13 Shia in the last election out of 40. In the appointed chamber, I think 17 or 18 deputies (out of 40).
What are the main demands of the opposition? What kind of reforms are you looking for?
Salman: The demands and reforms the people of Bahrain are calling for are simple, rightful, and necessary. The first demand is equality amongst all citizens. A transfer in the system of state from tribal rule based on a sheikh and the family of the sheikh and the rest of the population in a state of subservience to this family. This is tribal rule. Now, the opposition wants to move to a system of state where all citizens are equal and they have the same rights, including the right to vote where their votes are equal and not a system where the vote of the Sunni is more than the Shia.
The second demand is to have a parliament that is freely and fairly elected and has the full legislative power and no appointed members. And the third demand is that the electoral process result in an elected government chosen by the people and not on that is imposed on them. We also want a fair and independent judicial system. And not a politically motivated one like the one we have now and this is also one of the recommendations of Mr. Bassiouni’s report.
In addition, everyone in the country should be able to be part of the security establishment. These are the five major demands of the opposition. Besides this we call for the subject of naturalization to be reviewed. This is about naturalizing foreigners and outsiders becoming part of the security apparatus used to oppress the people of Bahrain who are demanding their rights.
There was a statement made by Pakistani ambassador about naturalizing 30,000 Pakistanis in Bahrain. This is in addition to the issue of discrimination that has been going on for years and did not just start with the recent incidents. However, this has increased in the last four years even if the discrimination policies have been in place by this regime for years.
So, what is needed is a revision of these policies so justice can be brought to the victims of these policies. These are the main demands of the opposition.
Now, you have tried to participate in the elections and you have also tried to participate in the boycott in the election. But it seems creating change has been quite difficult. So do you think that change will ever come about and what do you plan on doing next?
Salman: The political process in Bahrain is suffering from the stubbornness of the regime which rejects the idea of reform, especially gradual, and logical reform. And from our experience we have decided it is best for us to continue with our demand in a peaceful way until we are successful like other countries who reached reform not through participating in the parliament.
What was proven in the Arab Spring is that masses of people are the cause of real change. Except in Morocco, there was a moving forward through the route of the parliament. But because the regime is refusing to reform we will continue our demand through peaceful protest and peaceful methods until the regime realizes that we are not going away. And we will follow through with our political work and political pressure and media advocacy until we reach our goal.
And finally, what message will you give to the Al-Khalifa regime and to the people of Bahrain?
Salman: The message is to establish a political system that is humanitarian, democratic, and serves the general interests of Bahrainis from the al-Khalifa to the Shia and the Sunni. This is the only way for Bahrain to move forward and have stability. The continuation of the tribal mentality by the regime is no longer accepted and is the main reason for the problems Bahrain has faced throughout the years. Bahrain needs all its citizens to work together to establish prosperity and security. And my message to the noble people of Bahrain is that they continue their demands in a peaceful way until we gain equal citizenship and a democratic country.