Geopolitics

Bahraini opposition leaders sentenced to life in prison- analysis

After acquittals in Bahrain’s highest criminal court, an appeals court sentenced three senior opposition leaders to life in prison.

Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali al-Aswad were sentenced on November 4.  The trio was charged with hostile acts and “communicating with Qatari officials… to overthrow constitutional order,” according to a statement from the public prosecutor.

Al-Wefaq is one of Bahrain’s largest political parties, and in 2010 parliamentary elections they received 64% of the popular vote.  However, the party only received 18 of 40 seats in the lower house, and they have now been banned for competing in parliamentary elections later this month.

Despite election popularity, the party is considered an opposition party because Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy with the monarchy enjoying concentrated power.  King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appoints the government, and Bahrain has had the same prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, since 1971.  Al Khalifa is the current longest-serving prime minister in the world.

After the 2010 parliamentary elections, Al-Wefaq has been struggling in its opposition role.  In 2016, Bahrain’s courts ordered the group to be dissolved, suspended the group’s activities and froze their assets.

Al-Wefaq is so precariously positioned in Bahraini politics because not only are they the government’s opposition, but they are the Shia opposition to the Sunni monarchy.  Religious differences have been a driver for disagreements between the two factions.  Sunni allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have come to Bahrain’s aid in stamping out the country’s Shia opposition, including a 2011 uprising.

The allegation of an Al-Wefaq conspiracy with Qatar comes at a tense time between Qatar and its regional neighbours.  Friction between Qatar and its neighbours boils down an issue similar to Bahrain and its Shia opposition.

Qatar has a Shia majority like many neighbouring countries, but Saudi Arabia and other regional powers are upset with Qatar pivoting toward an alliance with Iran.  When the Saudi-led consortium of states issued the blockade against Qatar they listed 13 demands for Qatar to abide by, prominently including curbing ties with Iran.

Bahrain joined in on the Qatari blockade and is now turning their ire once again to Doha through the accusations against their opposition leaders.  Qatar has denied participating in collusion with Al-Wefaq and the foreign ministry condemned the allegation that Qatar was meddling in Bahraini internal politics.

In the 13 demands, the blockading countries also required Qatar to cease meddling in internal politics of other states.

Linking Al-Wefaq to Qatar is a calculated move on behalf of Bahrain, and it delegitimizes two opponents at once.  If proven to be true, Qatar would be violating several of the conditions to end the blockade, and Al-Wefaq would be conspiring with an unfriendly state.

This development also comes before parliamentary elections in late November.  Bahrain has gone further than banning opposition parties as they are now neutralizing their leadership through the judicial process.

The United States and the United Kingdom have publicly denounced Bahrain for its electoral repression, but the state has been emboldened by the Qatari blockade.

Unhindered by international condemnation, the Bahraini regime has sentenced other opposition activists to jail sentences ranging from three to 10 years.  Along with the sentencing for opposition leaders, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have declared the actions of Bahrain are unjust.

Bahrain has Western international opinion against them, however, their regional allies will not come out against the move.  In October, Bahrain supported Saudi Arabia after the Jamal Khashoggi case became an international story.  Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will remain close through thick and thin.

In terms of Western allies, Bahrain has complicated ties to the United States.  America expressed concern about Bahrain’s upcoming elections, but it is unimaginable that the White House will interfere considering the ties between the countries.

Bahrain expelled American Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski after he visited with Al-Wefaq leaders in 2014.  The Bahraini government accused Malinowski of operating counter to diplomatic norms, and the diplomat argued Bahrain was attempting to suppress a dialogue.

But, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis seems more magnanimous in his approach to Bahrain and the region.  Mattis gave a policy speech in Bahrain in late October, during which he condemned both the Khashoggi killing and the “hysterical” global reaction.

Defense Secretary Mattis is a staunch opponent of Iran, and President Trump has expressed support for the Saudi regime.  Some American senators may express concern about Bahraini elections and Saudi Arabian transgressions, but that concern is unlikely to be shared by the White House.

In the short term, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are benefitting from a cozy relationship with the United States, and opposition leaders are struggling.  But, they run the risk of enraging a large segment of the American and international community who may take up positions against Trump for posterity’s sake. 

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