Bahrain detains the head of the main al-Wefaq opposition movement

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A Bahraini protestor holds up a portrait of Bahraini head of the banned Shiite opposition movement al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman during a protest against his arrest on December 28, 2014 in Bilad al-Qadeem, a suburb of Manama. AFP / Mohammed al-Sheikh

Published Monday, December 29, 2014

Updated at 5:48 pm (GMT +2): Bahraini authorities on Sunday detained the head of the kingdom’s main opposition group after he was summoned for questioning over unspecified and unknown violations.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement Sunday that Sheikh Ali Salman – one of the most prominent opposition figures in the US-allied country – had been summoned for questioning by the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation.

"Legal procedures are now being finalized before the case is referred to the Public Prosecution," the statement read, without elaborating what the “case” was.

Sheikh Salman, secretary-general of al-Wefaq opposition movement, was among several prominent figures who led a peaceful rally near the capital Manama on Friday staged to protest against last month's general elections, which the opposition boycotted, and call for the dismissal of both the parliament and the government.

About 2,000 people participated in the rally, the ministry said.

Sheikh Salman’s lawyer, Abdullah al-Shamlan, tweeted that Salman had been accused of "inciting hatred against the regime and calling for its overthrow by force.”

He said wasn’t allowed to attend his client's questioning.

Shamlan said the al-Wefaq chief was also accused of "insulting the judiciary and the executive branch,” of "sectarian incitement,” of "spreading false news likely to cause panic and undermine security" and "participation in events detrimental to the economy.”

In a statement, al-Wefaq described Sheikh Salman's detention as "a dangerous and miscalculated adventure that complicates the political and security scene in Bahrain."

Who is Sheikh Salman

Sheikh Salman is the charismatic leader of the opposition in the US-backed Gulf monarchy who has been a vocal advocate of peaceful protests.

The soft-spoken Salman, 49, is considered a moderate who has pushed for a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain unlike hardline groups who have demanded the toppling the al-Khalifa dynasty.

"We want a constitutional monarchy where the al-Khalifas would be the monarchs," Salman told AFP in May 2011, shortly after Bahrain's deadly crackdown on month-long protests.

"We said: The people want to reform the regime. We did not raise the slogan of toppling the regime," said the advocate of peaceful protests.

However, Salman has been accused in the past of sowing sedition in the small but strategic Shia-majority archipelago, a key ally of Washington and home base of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

A year ago, he went through a day of questioning and was released with a travel ban after being accused of "incitement to religious hatred and spreading false news likely to harm national security."

Salman holds a bachelors degree in mathematics from Saudi Arabia and in 1987 headed to Iran's holy city of Qom to study Islamic Studies at the Shia school of clerics.

He returned to Bahrain in 1992, two years before the start of an uprising that eventually lasted five years and demanded reforms.

Salman was one of the signatories of a petition demanding the reinstatement of parliament, which had been dissolved in 1975 by ruler Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the late father of King Hamad.

Life in exile

Salman was widely considered one of the leaders of the uprising and he was arrested several times by the authorities.

In 1995 he was exiled to the United Arab Emirates, one of many regime opponents kicked out of the kingdom, and then moved on to Britain.

Salman returned to Bahrain in 2001 under a general amnesty that was part of reforms introduced by Hamad, who acceded to the throne in 1999.

Upon his return home, Salman set up al-Wefaq National Islamic Society with other Shiite opposition figures. In 2006 he was elected secretary general for the first time.

Al-Wefaq boycotted the first general elections in 2002 after Hamad restored parliament but created an appointed second chamber alongside the elected house.

But in 2006, al-Wefaq ran in general elections and won almost half the seats of the 40-member elected parliament.

The group held onto its seats in the following polls in 2010, but al-Wefaq MPs withdrew in 2011 in protest at the "repression" of the pro-democracy protests.

The protests had erupted in Manama on February 14, 2011, calling for reforms and just rights, including an elected prime minister.

At least 89 people are estimated to have been killed and thousands have been arrested and tried since the uprising erupted.

The current premier, Prince Khalifa bin Salman, is Hamad's uncle and has been in office since 1970.

"The royal family retains all powers -- executive, legislative and judicial, in addition to security, information and wealth," Salman said in October.

The opposition boycotted November polls calling them a "farce.”

Political activists have been prosecuted by Bahraini authorities for attempting to voice out and expose gross human rights violations by al-Khalifa ruling family, which has been in power for over 200 years.

Early December, a Bahrain court sentenced Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of prominent rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, to three years in prison for “insulting the king” by tearing up a photograph of him.

A couple of days earlier, Zainab’s sister Maryam, who is also a prominent rights activist, was sentenced in absentia to one year in jail for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

Bryan Dooley, head of Human Rights Defenders Program at the US-based Human Rights First, described Maryam’s sentence as a “powerful warning to human rights activists who criticize the regime.”

Moreover, Nabeel Rajab, director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) and co-founder of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), went on trial late October over remarks published on his Twitter account that were critical of state institutions.

BCHR blamed the arrest of Salman on the UK, which recently announced it will open a new military base in Bahrain, in an act that Rajab had described as a “reward” for silence on rights abuses in the kingdom.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)


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