Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sheikh Ali Salman, a Popular Bahraini Dissident

Sheikh Ali Salman
Sheikh Ali Salman. Photo AM-Bahrain/Demotix/Corbis

“I don’t know how many years I will have to stay in prison before I get out and hold you in the light again. Yet, what I want you to know is that I am in prison because I love seeing the sun rise in my country and lighten its darkness, and I would love my country to be joyful and prosper.”

Those were Sheikh Ali Salman’s words from prison in a letter to his daughter Nabaa, who celebrated her seventh birthday only two days before his arrest on 28 December 2014. She and Sara, her baby sister, who was then only a month old, will grow up with no nationality or identity card that could get her into school in the coming four years, because their father is a political prisoner.

Ali Salman (b. 1965), the popular dissident, Shiite cleric, and secretary general of Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main opposition group in Bahrain, was arrested after a series of speeches he delivered calling for political reform and accountability. After a trial that took more than 300 days and that did not, according to human-rights organizations, meet international standards and procedures for fair trials, Salman was sentenced on 16 June 2015 to four years in prison. “Al-Salman and his lawyers say they have consistently been prevented by the court from presenting oral arguments. It is further reported that Al-Salman and his legal representatives have not been provided with any meaningful opportunity to examine the evidence,” said the UN High Commissioner Rupert Colville, describing—in the 29th session of the Human Rights Council—Salman’s trial.

Sheikh Salman’s non-violent movement and his calls for peaceful protest failed to save him from jail. A court in Bahrain found him guilty of inciting disobedience and hatred and insulting an official body but acquitted him of the charge of seeking to overthrow the regime, which could have earned him a life sentence or even the death penalty.

It was by no means the first time Sheikh Salman had been imprisoned. After a long career in demanding political reform and human rights for the Bahraini people, Salman was jailed between 1993 and 1994, and was banished from the country in 1995. Salman’s political activity began in the early 1990s, after he completed his degree in Islamic studies in Qum (Iran) and returned home in 1993, where he led an uprising in 1994, which demanded the restoration of the parliament and the social-contract constitution of 1973. He was deported to Dubai in 1995, during the government’s crackdown on the uprising. Exile didn’t stop Salman from continuing his political activism after he moved to London. In 2001, Salman returned, just as the king, then known as the emir, launched the National Action Charter as a solution to the crisis the country faced in the 1990s. He pledged to agree on a social contract by which people’s demand that Bahrain be transformed into a constitutional monarchy would be met, but the pledge was not kept.

Al Wefaq was founded the same year Salman returned and became the largest political party in Bahrain. Ali Salman has been its secretary general since its foundation, having been re-elected four times.

Sheikh Salman has occupied other political positions as well. He ran for election in 2006, when his party decided to participate in order to achieve change within the political system. Salman became a member of the parliament for a four-year term, having won 83% of the vote in his constituency. In 2011, Al Wefaq withdrew from the parliament, after the brutal crackdown on the mainly Shiite pro-democracy uprising against the Sunni rulers. Salman led an election boycott in November 2014 in the absence of a fair electoral system and was summoned by the office of Bahraini Public Prosecution on 28 December 2014, only two days after he was re-elected secretary general of Al Wefaq.

Salman was able throughout his political career to make of non-violence a solid principle and a well-established behaviour in the streets of Bahrain in demanding democratic reform. The court’s accusations of inciting disobedience and violence were thus not only considered dubious and unrealistic by Al Wefaq but provoked condemnation from international human-rights campaigners, such as Amnesty International, which described Salman’s conviction as “another clear example of Bahrain’s flagrant disregard for international obligations” and called for his immediate release. The UN Human Rights Office, too, called for his immediate release. His prosecution also prompted US concern expressed by State Department spokesman, Jeff Rathke: “We are concerned that this action against a senior leader of the opposition will only inflame tensions.” Bahrain’s appeals court adjourned Sheikh Ali Salman’s trial until 14 January 2016 for the defence pleading.

“Arrest me for life, arrest my wife, arrest my son Mojtaba, arrest my daughter Nabaa, put us all in prison…. You do not have constitutional legitimacy.” Salman was arrested soon after he read these words. Bahrain remains polarized between government suppression and the opposition’s determination, and there is no clear indication of who will win this round. Since opposition leader Ali Salman’s imprisonment, however, there is no sign of an imminent political solution.

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