DUBAI: Bahrain suspended the tiny island kingdom's largest Shiite political group and froze its assets yesterday as part of a widening crackdown on activists and dissent five years after the country's Arab Spring protests. The Al-Wefaq opposition group has been suspended before as Bahrain has been embroiled in turmoil over the protests and lingering unrest that followed in the years since the demonstrations. However, Bahrain's Sunni-ruled government increasingly has targeted activists in recent days, which has seen one flee for Denmark and another, previously pardoned by its king, detained again.
A statement from the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry carried on the state-run Bahrain News Agency said a court made the decision to suspend Al-Wefaq to "safeguard the security of the kingdom." Abdulla Al-Shamlawi, the lawyer who represented Al-Wefaq in court, said he was served the court papers for the hearing yesterday morning and had to argue to be allowed to offer any sort of rebuttal. He said the complaint alleged Al-Wefaq had damaged Bahrain's national security since its inception in 2001 and also included allegations about it causing unrest during the 2011 protests.
"It was out of the blue," Al-Shamlawi said. He said the court set an Oct 6 hearing to decide whether to "liquidate" the party - meaning the island's biggest opposition group could be entirely dismantled. He said Al-Wefaq "presumably" would appeal the court's ruling, though the order suspending the party would stand unless an appeals court specifically rules to halt it. The sudden court case came a day after authorities detained Nabeel Rajab, a prominent activist and the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Zainab Al-Khawaja, another prominent activist, fled for Denmark in recent days over fears of being imprisoned again.
In May, a Bahraini appeals court more than doubled a prison sentence for Al-Wefaq's secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman. Salman now faces nine years behind bars, up from an earlier four, following his conviction last year on charges that included incitement and insulting the Interior Ministry. Bahrain's 2011 demonstrations saw the island's majority Shiite population and others demand more political freedoms from its Sunni rulers. The protests on the island, home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, were crushed by the government with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Since then, the island has faced low-level unrest, protests and attacks on police. Other prominent opposition figures and human rights activists remain imprisoned. Some have been stripped of their citizenship and deported. In a speech Monday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, said at least 250 people lost their citizenship in Bahrain in recent years "because of their alleged disloyalty to the interests of the kingdom." "Repression will not eliminate people's grievances; it will increase them," he warned. However, rights groups say Bahrain refused to allow activists to leave the country to attend the conference that Al-Hussein spoke at in Geneva.
Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa responded to Al-Hussein's remarks on Twitter by writing: "We will not allow the undermining of our security and stability and will not waste our time listening to the words of a high commissioner who is powerless." Yesterday's court decision shows Bahrain "is bulldozing its civil society," said Sayed Ahmed Al-Wadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. "Bahrain is only reforming itself into a state of silence and terror," Al-Wadaei said in a statement.- AP