Bahrain’s persecution against the opposition leader, SheikhAli Salman

May 2018


Sheikh Ali Salman is the Secretary General of the Bahrain’s largest opposition party, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. He led the political movement in the 1990s, when he was arrested and forced to be in exile. He went back to Bahrain in 2001 and played a crucial role in establishing al-Wefaq. In 2006, he was elected as a member of the House of Representatives. In the 2010 elections, his party, al-Wefaq, won 18 of 40 parliamentary seats.

Sheikh Ali Salman has been an active advocate for peaceful political movement and comprehensive reform projects of the government. During the pro-democracy uprisings in 2002 and onwards, he played a significant role in reconciliation between the government and opposition. Nonetheless, the Bahraini authorities responded as an arbitrary arrest and unfair trials, which resulted in 4-years detention since 2014. In 2017, the Public Prosecution added another charge against him of communicating with Qatar “to overthrow the regime”.

Sheikh Ali Salmanisnow almost completing a four-year sentence, but he is facing a new verdict on 21 June 2018, which is expected to be harsh, and there are serious concerns that the authorities would arbitrarily issue a death sentence to Shaikh Ali Salman.

Arbitrary Arrest and Interrogations

On 28 December 2014, only two days after he was re-elected as a secretary general of al-Wefaq, the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation summoned Sheikh Ali Salman for interrogation. He was accompanied by lawyers, Abdullah al-Shamlawi and Abduljalil al-Aradi, but the authorityrefused their attendance at the questioning sessions except one time. After nine hour of questioning, the defence team was informed that Ali Salman would be taken to the Public Prosecution office, which did not happen in the end, and he was kept detained instead. During the period of detention, Sheikh Ali Salman was not allowed to contact his family except a seconds-long call.

In the following day, the first day of interrogation at the Public Prosecution began. The lawyers’ request to have a look at the interrogation file before the session was ignored. After the interrogation, the Public Prosecution made a press statement about the charges against Ali Salman, including indictments that were not mentioned during the interrogation sessions: the incitement to overthrow the regime by force, the insult to the Ministry of Interior, the incitement of disobeying the law, and the incitement of hatred against segments of society. These indictments were based on statements of Ali Salman in his speeches and sermons, which were arbitrarily misinterpreted by the authorities.

The series of interrogation completed on 30 December 2014. During the sessions, Sheikh Ali Salman was not granted the right to access the sufficient and required legal advice.

Unfair and Arbitrary Trials

His first trial took place on 28 January 2015. The Prosecution called a series of his speeches into question to bring a charge against Ali Salman. One was his statement on 10 October 2014 that “the people have bigger and bigger force in them. All that you need to do is call forth this forth. I’m nottalking about military force.”

Another statement that the Prosecution offered as evidence was in his speech about the Ayatollah Isa Qassim’s endorsement of peaceful political movement. Ali Salman said on 4 December 2014 that “the peaceful movement, renouncement of violence and non-adoption of the military option – which was and remains on the table”. He added that under Qassims’ leadership, “there was a stress on the peaceful option, a repudiation of violence, and a move away from the military option”.

Likewise, at the general assembly of al-Wefaq on 26 December 2014, Sheikh Ali Salman emphasised the peaceful means of political movements by saying that “the Bahraini opposition has been encouraged to become like the Syrian opposition and transform the country into a military battleground, but it has remained steadfast in its peaceful [protest] and this clarity of vision is what has prevented Bahrain from being drawn into violence”.

Despite his clear messages that refused military and violent options of the public pro-democracy movement, the authorities charged him of “publicly inciting hatred, inciting civil disobedience of the law, insulting public institutions, and advocating the overthrow of the government by force”.

Moreover, although the excerpts from his speeches were the only evidence for the charge against him, the judge refused the demands of his lawyers to use audio-visual equipment to play his speech recordings in full in the court. Instead, the lawyers were accused of “intending to raise doubts about the substantiating evidence that has persuaded the court”. The requests of the defence team to call witnesses for testimonies were also rejected, which is violation of basic right to a fair trial.

During the trial on 20 May 2015, the judge did not accept further documents prepared by his lawyers as evidence. The defence team submitted an official complaint to the Supreme Council of Judiciary requesting the organisation of a new court panel that would guaranteeSalman’s right to a fair trial. However, the court did not accept the demand, and further denied requests to release Sheikh Salman on bail.

Through his letter of pleading to the court, Sheikh Ali Salman clarified his peaceful political vision for development of democracy in Bahrain. He stated it was regrettable that the authorities misinterpreted his demands for establishing a genuine constitutional monarchy where equality among citizens and their rights are respected, while any forms of discrimination based on tribal and sectarian backgrounds are rejected, which are the basic principle of the Bahrain’s Constitution.

Nevertheless, on 16 June 2015, the court sentenced Sheikh Ali Salman to four years in Jau Prison, for three charges, “publicly inciting hatred, inciting civil disobedience of the law, and insulting public institutions”. The charge of “insulting the Interior Ministry” is based on Article 216 of the Penal Code of Bahrain, which contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that “state parties should not prohibit criticism of institution, such as the army or the administration”. Another charge, “public incitement of civil disobedience of the law”, was based on Article 173 of the Penal Code, for his encouragement to the public to exercise their right to free assembly. He was also convicted for “inciting hatred”, in violation of Article 172 of the Penal Code. He was acquitted on the charge of the attempt to overthrow the regime, as there was “no certain proof of the advocacy of the use of force, threat, or unlawful means to change the political system”

The prosecution, however, appealed his acquittal of an attempt to overthrow the regime. On 30 May 2016, the First High Court of Appeal changed its decision and increased the previously-imposed four-year-sentence to nine years in prison; seven years for “inciting the regime change, the hatred against a sector of society, and criminal activities”, and two years for “insulting a statutory body”. It said that Sheikh Ali Salman “justified acts of violence and sabotage” and “repeatedly threatened to use military force, and publicly expressed that the military option was still open”. Sheikh Ali Salman fully denied the charges, and on 12 May 2017, the Court of Cassation overturned the verdict to four-year sentence against him.

On top of that, on 1 November 2017, the authorities made new charges against him of communicating with Qatar to “commit subversive acts against Bahrain and undermine its political, economic position and national interests with the purpose of overthrowing the regime”, amid the increasing diplomatic tension with the country. The evidences presented by the Public Prosecution included the “existence of direct communications via meetings within and outside Bahrain”, “the exchange of messages as well as telephone calls”, and “appearance of al-Wefaq members in Al-Jazeera channel”.Sheikh Ali Salman, who has been almost completing his original 4-year-imprisonment, denied these charges as he found them false and misinterpreted. The call, which has been the basis of the accusation, was between Sheikh Ali Salman and the Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim in 2011 to discuss the solution to end the political turmoil in Bahrain. This was part of regional and international initiative to resolve the crisis, in which the US also played a significant role.Only a clip from the call has been presented as evidence, which only proves that the accusation is totally unfair and absurd.

The first hearing of the trial took place on 27 November 2017, and the trial lasted for eight sessions. On 24 April 2018, the High Criminal Court adjourned the new trial of Sheikh Ali Salman for the verdict until 21 June. The verdict is expected to be harsh and hasty after the court refused to discuss the evidence the Public Prosecutor’s Office maintained, which proved to be false and fragmentary after being examined by accredited and official technical laboratories. As a result, there is serious concern that the Court would issue a death sentence against him, as the Public Prosecution demanded the Court to hand down the “maximum penalty”.

Contraventions of International Law and Responses

All of these charges against Sheikh Ali Salman are largely based on his public speeches. This indicates that the Bahraini authorities criminalise the right to freedom of expression, which is protected in Article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that Bahrain has ratified, as well as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The arbitrary detention and arrest significantly violate his right not to be deprived arbitrarily of liberty, stipulated in Article 9 of the ICCPR and Article 9 of the UDHR. His right to prepare his defense was violated as the authorities did not allow his lawyers to attend the questionings and look at the interrogation files. This is a crucial violation to Article 14 of the ICCPR as well as Article 10 and 11 of the UDHR that state the right of the accused to defend himself in fair trials.

Since the early stage of the government’s arrest and trial against Sheikh Ali Salman, the international community has condemned the government’s persecution against Sheikh Ali Salman.

The US State Department as well as European Parliament repeatedly raised concerns about the unfair trial against Sheikh Ali Salman, pointing out that it would only undermine chances of reaching national reconciliation in Bahrain.

Amnesty International commented it is “shocking” that Sheikh Ali Salman received a jail sentence solely for peacefully expressing his opinion, and Human Rights Watch mentioned that “Sheikh Salman is the latest casualty of Bahrain’s war on dissent”.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful of Assembly, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers expressed deep concerns that the right of Sheikh Ali Salman to freedom of expression was unfairly violated by the Bahraini authorities. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) also has shown concerns about the arbitrary detention of Sheikh Ali Salman.


The Dissolution of Al-Wefaq

In addition to the persecution against Sheikh Ali Salman, the Bahraini authorities have continued to crack down on the political party he leads, al-Wefaq. For instance, in July 2014, after the visit of Tom Malinowski, the US Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, to al-Wefaq headquarter, the Bahraini authorities summoned Ali Salman, and filed a lawsuit against al-Wefaq. In October the same year, the government suspended al-Wefaq until it rectified the illegal status of its general assemblies.

Since 2011, the repression against the opposition party has been enhanced. After a massive public protest took place, al-Wefaq played a role in bringing about a reconciliation with the government. However, due to the sabotage of the authorities, it could not reach a meaningful agreement.

In October 2014, al-Wefaq announced its boycott of the 2014 General Elections to protest an unfair electoral system and lack of reform process, which was followed by the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman in December.

In 2016, the Ministry of Justice made an order to dissolve al-Wefaq and confiscate its assets. On 14 June 2016, a court approved the Ministry’s decision. On 17 July 2016, the High Civil Court affirmed the order that dissolved al-Wefaq. On 22 September 2016, the Second-High Civil Court of Appeals upheld the dissolution.


Targeted Abuse against the Family Members

The persecution against Sheikh Ali Salman did not end there. When Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested in 2014 by the Bahraini authorities for leading demands for political reforms in the country, his daughter Sarah was only 40 days old. On more than one occasion and through lawyers, Sarah’s family has submitted applications for a passport and identity card for the child, but the authorities rejected the application in the pretext that the procedures require the physical presence of the father at the administration office.

In order for Sarah’s application, Sheikh Ali Salman has demanded the prison administration and relevant judiciary authorities to issue permission to allow him to attend his daughter’s registration. However, these requests did not receive a response without any justification despite the passage of three years, and the family were not even allowed to hire a lawyer to file the application on behalf of the sheikh.

As a result, Sarah Ali Salman, who will turn four years old in November, has not been able to obtain basic civil rights such as education, medical treatment, and travel. This is a flagrant violation of the international treaties ratified by Bahrain, notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child of the Bahraini Constitution, Article 17 that states: “Bahraini nationality shall be determined by law and may not be revoked from those who enjoy it except in the case of treason and other conditions specified by law”.


To the government of Bahrain:

  • Immediately release Sheikh Ali Salman, along with human rights activists,former MPs, and prisoners of conscience whom being charged for exercising their rights, and stop arbitrary verdicts issued against them.
  • End harassment of Sheikh Ali Salman by delaying due process and formality and drop all pending charges against him for exercising his right to freedom of expression.
  • Immediately stop the use of family members including children as a card of political conflict and grant all children deprived of citizenship or civil documents because of the presence of their parents in prisons all of their rights.

To the international community:

  • Ensure united pressure directed at Bahrain through all legal means and urge Bahrain to rescind the arbitrary political measures that hinder freedom of expression and assembly.
  • Urge the government of Bahrain to adopt and implement the basic principles on the independence of the judges, to ensure that the Government of Bahrain refrains from trying civilians through unfair trials.
  • Urge the Government of Bahrain to respond promptly to the request for the visit of UN Special Rapporteurs, in particular the SpecialRapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful of Assembly,Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Urge international organisations and the Human Rights Council to monitor trials of political dissidents and religious clerics who have been charged with ordinary criminal charges under the various articles of the Criminal Code.
  • The mechanisms for the appointment of the Supreme Judicial Council are amended in order to allow the public to exercise its authority to supervise the work of the judiciary.
  • Law enforcement agencies should publicly make commitments to investigate all discrimination and persecution in Bahrain.