Bahrain dissident chief boycotts Qatar-linked trial

A Bahraini man holds a portrait of jailed opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman during a protest on May 29, 2016

By AFP

Bahrain’s jailed Shiite opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman refused to appear in court Monday to face charges of contacts with Qatar to “overthrow the regime”, the attorney general said.

Salman and two members of his banned Al-Wefaq movement, Hassan Sultan and Ali al-Aswad, are charged with “communicating with a foreign state to commit acts hostile to the state of Bahrain with the intent to harm its political, economic and national interests in order to overthrow the regime”, Osama al-Awfi said.

The jailed leader of the Shiite movement “refused to attend the hearing”, which has been deferred to Wednesday, the attorney general said in a statement.

Ali Salman has been behind bars since 2014 serving a nine-year sentence for allegedly inciting hatred, while Sultan and Aswad are on the run.

In August, Bahraini authorities accused Salman of having collaborated with Qatar in 2011 to encourage protesters to take to the streets.

The accusations came after Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, cut ties with Qatar in June over alleged support for Islamist extremism and ties with Shiite-dominated Iran. Doha denies the allegations.

Ruled for more than 200 years by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, Bahrain is home to a Shiite majority that for years has complained of political marginalisation.

The archipelago, which is located between regional arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, has been rocked by protests demanding an elected government since 2011.

Bahraini authorities have also accused Iran of backing the protests and of aiming to overthrow the government. Tehran has denied any involvement.

Over the past six years, Bahraini authorities have tightened their grip on all dissent, jailing dozens of high-profile clerics and activists and disbanding both religious and secular opposition groups.

Bahraini Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim (portrait), who was stripped of his citizenship last year, is reportedly facing serious health issues

Bahraini Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim (portrait), who was stripped of his citizenship last year, is reportedly facing serious health issues

Also on Monday, relatives of Bahrain’s leading Shiite cleric, who has been under de facto house arrest since 2016, said he was facing serious health issues and had been seen by a team of doctors not linked to the government.

London-based rights group the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said Qassim was in “continuous pain” and had been diagnosed with a groin hernia that required urgent surgery.

Qassim also has high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, according to the rights group.

The cleric was stripped of Bahraini citizenship last year over charges of “serving foreign interests”, money laundering and illegal fundraising.

Salman’s Al-Wefaq movement was once the largest bloc in Bahrain’s elected lower house of parliament.

Its members of parliament resigned en masse in 2011 in protest against the state’s crackdown on demonstrators, before a 2016 court order dissolved Al-Wefaq for “harbouring terrorism”.

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