The below analysis looks at the charges facing Al-Wefaq Islamic Society Secretary-General Ali Salman and what different sides are saying concerning these charges and other accusations made against him.
Ali Salman has been charged on a number of counts, including “public speeches that promoted political change, confronting state authorities, calls to stage unlawful protests, in addition to incitement to non-compliance with the law”.
According to the Public Prosecution Ali Salman “used public statements to spread extremist views that encouraged the use of force against the kingdom’s authorities”. Furthermore, according to prosecutors, Ali Salman has acknowledged meetings abroad with individuals who offered to provide him with weapons.
The case against Ali Salman
Threatening to use force against the state
Ali Salman on several occasions in his public speeches has hinted at the option of taking a far more “forceful” approach. His speeches have consistently pushed the boundaries of what he can get away with without facing legal measures.
According to the authorities, speeches by Ali Salman have “incited hatred against the government and promoted rioting and vandalism”.
Despite the killing of nearly 20 police and civilians by militants allied to Al-Wefaq and sharing its aims, Ali Salman has only condemned terrorism in the vaguest terms; refusing to condemn specific incidents or express concern for bereaved families. This leaves Al-Wefaq’s attitude towards the use of violent and illegal methods as highly ambiguous.
Al-Wefaq has held rallies marking the deaths of those killed while involved in criminal and terrorist activities. Leading figures from Al-Wefaq have made supportive comments towards these terrorists through the social media.
Seeking foreign support and urging other states to intervene in Bahrain
Ali Salman has always been close to Iran, where he received his religious education. He and his mentor Ayatollah Isa Qassim are adherents to Ayatollah Khomeini’s principle of “welayat al-faqih” which demands that political leadership should be in the hands of the most senior religious clerics. Prior to 2011 Al-Wefaq marches led by Ali Salman always featured pro-Hezbollah banners and huge images of Iran’s religious leaders.
Ali Salman has on several occasions called for outside “intervention” which the prosecutors say acts as a green light for Iran, Hezbollah and others to meddle in Bahrain.
Prosecutors say that Ali Salman has acknowledged holding meetings abroad with figures who offered to provide weapons to Al-Wefaq.
The public prosecutor said that Salman had acknowledged during questioning that “he had contacted a number of overseas regimes and political organizations to discuss the internal affairs of the Kingdom” and that he “did not inform any official authority in the Kingdom of these communications.” This contravenes the September 2013 amendment to the 2005 law requiring political groups to secure advance government permission before meeting with foreign diplomats in Bahrain and abroad.
Inciting supporters to engage in illegal activity
Prosecutors say that Ali Salman has incited youths to diverge from permitted routes for licensed demonstrations. When licenses have not been granted on occasions Ali Salman has reportedly encouraged supporters to engage in illegal marches.
At times when others have been making efforts for Dialogue and conciliation, Ali Salman’s speeches have often been inflammatory and confrontational.
According to the Attorney General in December 2014: “The content and nature” of Salman’s statements “had escalated significantly from incitement and hate speech, ultimately to threats of military force against the state” and that this included “the imminent option to deploy methods currently used by armed groups operating elsewhere in the region.”
Trying to overturn the political system
The EU and many nations around the world criticized Ali Salman’s decision not to take his political society back into Parliament during the 2014 elections, a decision which limits Al-Wefaq’s role to trying to force political change from outside the political system.
Ali Salman has always taken a very ambivalent approach towards democracy. He talks vaguely about demanding rights, but on the principles and values of democracy, he is often highly negative, once dismissing participation in democratic elections as a “waste of time”.
Salman has shown a complete unwillingness to compromise with other political groupings or to take into account the views and aspirations of other components of Bahrain’s society. Ali Salman has tended to portray his political aims in religious terms, describing the situation as a “struggle between good and evil”.
Seeking theocracy, not democracy
Al-Wefaq is governed along religious, sectarian principles and led by clerics and Ayatollahs. Ali Salman himself is a cleric, before being a politician.
During the February 2011 unrest Al-Wefaq aligned itself with other groupings that defined themselves as the “Coalition for a Republic” seeking to forcibly remove Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy and impose an Islamic republic along Iranian lines. The key members of this Coalition were former members of Al-Wefaq.
Al-Wefaq remains closely aligned with groupings like the Coalition which has claimed responsibility for acts of terrorism in Bahrain.
Even devout supporters of the opposition have expressed reservations about Al-Wefaq’s deferment to religious leaders and enforced segregation of men and women. They acknowledge that the success of Al-Wefaq’s agenda may have profoundly anti-democratic consequences for Bahrain, ushering in a sectarian, authoritarian and theocratic regime.
The prosecution has also alleged as incitement against naturalized Bahraini citizens by accusing them of disloyalty to the kingdom and committing terrorist acts. According to the evidence Ali Salman called for the deportation of naturalized Bahrainis from Bahrain.
Public statements made by Ali Salman were also cited in the evidence, calling for the reinstatement and continued work of the disbanded Islamic Council of Scholars
The case for Ali Salman
Prisoner of conscience?
Supporters and certain human rights NGOs claim that Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience and that he is being subjected to legal measures because of his political views. Certainly these parties will be continuing to monitor Ali Salman’s case closely to see whether due legal process continues to be followed in investigating the allegations made against him.
Sheikh ‘Ali Salman’s defence team issued a statement saying the Public Prosecution was putting statements out of context with the aim of defaming their client. They added that the communications with diplomatic missions and political organizations were part of his work as a political leader and that they were known to the authorities in Bahrain.
Condemnation of terrorism
It is true that Al-Wefaq on occasions has issued statements distancing itself from terrorism and calling on its supporters to abide by peaceful means.
For example, a 13 December 2014 statement from Al-Wefaq and its allies declared “full support of international efforts to clamp down on terrorism, but will not accept support to the dictatorship and authoritarianism that controls national wealth and decision-making in Bahrain”.
Al-Wefaq statements have not condemned specific incidences of terrorism inside Bahrain.
Commitment to peaceful means
Al-Wefaq say of their leader: “Being Secretary General of the largest political group in the country, Sheikh Ali Salman demonstrated his belief in dialogue and pluralism by faithfully working to reach an inclusive solution for the constitutional and political crisis. Although he believes that the walk to freedom is long, he has chosen nonviolence as an unchangeable approach to achieve the righteous prodemocracy aspirations of the people. He vocally refused all forms of hatred and discrimination between the citizens and steadily called for equality and justice.”
Human Rights Watch has reviewed segments from Ali Salman’s speeches, highlighting the following quotes:
On December 26, Salman addressed the Al Wefaq general conference: “the Bahraini opposition has been encouraged to become like the Syrian opposition and transform the country into a military battleground, but it has remained steadfast in its peaceful [protest] and this clarity of vision is what has prevented Bahrain from being drawn into violence.”
In a sermon speech on December 4, 2014, Salman stated that one of the major contributions of Al Wefaq’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Isa Qassim, was in clarifying the importance of “peaceful action, the repudiation of violence, and a turn away from the military option, which was and remains on the table.” He added that under Qassim’s leadership, “there was a stress on the peaceful option, a repudiation of violence, and a move away from the military option.”
A violation of freedom of expression
Amnesty International has said the following about Ali Salman’s detention” The organization considers the detention and prosecution of Sheikh ‘Ali Salman a flagrant violation of his right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and urges the Bahraini authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally. If convicted, the organization would consider him a prisoner of conscience. The action against Sheikh ‘Ali Salman and the trial of other outspoken activists for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression highlight the Bahraini authorities’ increasing intolerance to criticism and seek to silence legitimate demands for reform and respect of human rights.”
The allegations of involvement with parties overseas who have offered to supply weapons; inciting others to engage in unlicensed protests and illegal activities; and inflaming sectarian tensions are serious charges.
Meanwhile, in calling for the deportation of naturalized Bahrainis, holding meetings with foreign groups without giving official notice and encouraging the continued work of the disbanded Islamic Council of Scholars, Salman appears to be out of step with Bahraini law.
Aside from the legal implications, Ali Salman is a highly divisive figure in Bahrain. His arrest hasn’t prompted the massive response from supporters that some may have predicted. Yet a large proportion of Bahrainis see Ali Salman as responsible for the chaos and unrest of the last four years.
Ali Salman may not have publically and explicitly called for acts of terrorism. However, by rejecting the political process, mobilizing supporters and inflaming sectarian tensions; Salman has created the conditions for radicalization of youth within the Shia community. His words and actions have resulted in dangerous social tensions. Ali Salman may say that he rejects terrorism, but many of those who act in his name think differently.