Health of Bahrain’s Top Shiite Cleric Worsens

Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, center, at a protest at a mosque in the capital of Bahrain, Manama, in 2014.
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE — GETTY IMAGES
By RICK GLADSTONE
NOVEMBER 27, 2017
For months, the most important cleric among Bahrain’s Shiite majority has stayed home, threatened with deportation by the kingdom’s ruling Sunni minority under a 2016 order revoking his citizenship.

Simmering political tensions in Bahrain over that order escalated abruptly on Monday with news that the cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, is in the midst of a health crisis.

Human rights activists said Ayatollah Qassim, the spiritual voice of Bahrain’s Shiites, required urgent hospitalization for an emergency operation to repair a hernia.

It was unclear, however, if that will be permitted. His supporters say the deportation order has effectively kept the cleric under house arrest.
“There are fears he will be deported if he leaves his home,” said the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, a British-based organization that has been monitoring the events in Bahrain.

In a statement, the organization said Ayatollah Qassim, who is in his 70s and has other health problems, including high blood pressure and diabetes, was “in continuous pain and excreting blood.”

The statement said the cleric’s family had implored the police surrounding his home to allow a visit on Sunday by doctors, who had recommended an emergency operation.

Sheikh Maytham al-Salman, a prominent interfaith cleric in Bahrain, said: “The Bahraini government holds the full responsibility of the Sheikh Isa Qassim’s well-being, as they imposed the house arrest and control his access to medical treatment.”
Bahrain officials did not immediately comment on the cleric’s condition or whether he would be allowed to enter a hospital. Messages left with the Bahrain Embassy in Washington and its United Nations Mission in New York were not returned.

Ayatollah Qassim’s worsening condition could incite unrest in Bahrain, an oil-rich kingdom that is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and the United States and is home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The fleet patrols the Persian Gulf and is a military counterweight to Iran, the region’s Shiite power.

Bahrain has been repeatedly roiled by protests among its Shiite majority since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Bahrain’s police and security agencies, which have a reputation for using disproportionate force, have often crushed the protests violently.

Ayatollah Qassim has been an outspoken critic of the government’s tactics. He was punished in June 2016 by the Interior Ministry, which accused him of encouraging divisiveness and revoked his citizenship.
He is one of more than 480 people stripped of Bahraini citizenship since 2012, a punishment that Human Rights Watch has described as a tactic of political repression.

The cleric’s village, Duraz, has been under what human rights activists have called a continuous police blockade since the Interior Ministry’s order against him.

Last May, the cleric was given a one-year suspended sentence on charges of money laundering, which his supporters called a politically motivated, sham prosecution. Anger over how the cleric had been treated exploded in deadly protests outside his home.

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