Bahraini opposition leader slams repression ahead of elections

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Bahrain's al-Wefaq opposition group leader Sheikh Ali Salman speaks during a rally against the upcoming parliamentary election in the village of Zinj, south of Manama, November 20, 2014. AFP / Mohammed al-Shaikh

Published Friday, November 21, 2014

Bahraini rulers' failure to loosen their grip on power could trigger a surge in violence, the chief of the kingdom's main opposition movement warned Friday, a day before the oil-rich kingdom holds elections without the participation of opposition groups.

On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the village of Diraz pledging to boycott Saturday's polls, with police firing tear gas to disperse them, witnesses said.

Information Minister Samira Rajab said that the Bahraini government was ready for a dialogue with the opposition, insisting, however, that "chaos" won't be tolerated.

"The door to dialogue will never be shut, including with al-Wefaq," she said in an interview with AFP, referring to the main opposition movement that was hit with a three-month ban last month.

"Violence is not allowed. It is tantamount to terrorism,” she added, threatening an opposition that has only adhered to peaceful means of protest for almost four years.

The Bahraini opposition demand a "real" constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister who is independent from the ruling royal family. But the US and Saudi-backed King Hamad al-Khalifa, whose family has been in power for over 200 years, has refused to yield.

Al-Wefaq, which was banned in October from carrying out any activities for three months for allegedly “violating the law on associations," and four other opposition groups are boycotting Saturday's legislative and municipal polls in Bahrain.

Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman told AFP on Friday that the opposition could resume talks with the government if it agreed to implement reforms in line with a strict timetable.

"This has been our strategy in the past, it is our strategy today and will be our strategy tomorrow... in order to reach a consensus that would end the ruling family's monopoly of all power," he said.

Boycotting Saturday's elections reflects "the people's demand for democratic reforms," and for securing a political partnership with the authorities, he said.

Salman warned that failure to reach that a political accord could spark an "explosion" of violence in Bahrain.

"A huge terrorist threat hangs over all the countries (of the region) and unfortunately everything is possible... as long as the regime and the opposition do not reach a political agreement," he said.

Moreover, Rajab also denounced "foreign interference,” saying it fanned tensions and stood in the way of “an agreement” between the Bahraini opposition and the government.

Bahrain, a country ruled by an unelected monarchy, has repeatedly accused Iran, which lies just across the Gulf, of backing the opposition.

When asked about Iran, Rajab said the country “is a neighbor with whom we wish to have good relations."

Some fear Bahrain is caught between Iran and Saudi Arabia, even though the latter was the one to bluntly interfere in the internal affairs of its fellow Gulf kingdom.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors sent troops into Bahrain in March 2011, reinforcing a crackdown that led to accusations of serious human rights violations.

With Saudi Arabia's help, Bahrain crushed peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that began on February 14, 2011, but the small nation has yet to resolve the conflict between the opposition and the monarchy.

Today, Bahrain, a key ally of Washington and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has the distinction of being the country with the second highest prison population rate per 100,000 amongst Arab states in the West Asian and North African region.

The kingdom continues to detain over 2,000 Bahrainis who dared to challenge the al-Khalifa monarchy when the uprising erupted in 2011.

Over 200 minors are being held within these prisons, forced to stay side-by-side with adults, and some have faced torture and sexual abuses.

Authorities ignored pleas by human rights groups to release political prisoners, instead increasing the punishment for violent crimes.

On Friday, Salman said he did not expect the opposition to reach an agreement with the government.

The past three years, he said, "have shown that the regime rejects democracy."

Besides imprisonment, dozens of Bahrainis have had their citizenship revoked and several have also been deported since Bahrain adopted a law last year stipulating that suspects convicted of "terrorist" acts could be stripped of their nationality.

The Ministry of Interior in November 2012 revoked the nationality of 31 pro-democracy activists in the name of the Bahrain Citizenship Law, “under which the nationality of a person can be revoked if he or she causes harm to state security,” Amnesty International said in a report.

“The Bahraini authorities are running out of arguments to justify repression. They are now resorting to extreme measures such as jail sentences and revoking nationality to quell dissent in the country, rather than allowing people to peacefully express their views,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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