When prominent Bahraini opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif was released from prison last month after serving four years and three months of a five year sentence, supporters of the Bahraini government presented it as evidence of the country’s continued appetite for reform. The Obama administration even justified its decision to restore military aid to Bahrain on the grounds that unnamed political prisoners - presumably including Sharif - had been released from prison and “meaningful progress on human rights reform” was being made (a statement which echoes British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s declaration earlier this year that Bahrain was “making significant reform”).
Six weeks later, however, and Sharif is back in prison, facing charges of inciting hatred against the regime. His arrest is believed to be linked to a speech he made at a memorial service for a 16-year-old boy who was killed by police in 2012, during which he called for reform and reconciliation and described violence as a tactic of the government, rather than the political opposition. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Bahraini human rights organisations, have since called for Sharif’s unconditional and immediate release.
Sharif’s re-arrest is significant not just because it contradicts the Bahraini government’s narrative of reform, but also because it demonstrates the fallacy of another argument which the monarchy and its supporters have been keen to make: that Bahrain’s political crisis is driven by a sectarian protest movement comprised exclusively of the country’s marginalised Shia majority. Sharif, however, is a secular Sunni Muslim who espouses sectarian unity and non-violence and enjoys the respect of both Shia and Sunni opposition activists in Bahrain. It is perhaps for this reason that the government considers him such a threat.
As one of thirteen prominent opposition leaders who were imprisoned in 2011 for their role in Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement, Sharif was held in solitary confinement for 56 days and subjected to torture, including sexual abused, beating and deprivation of sleep. With Sharif back in detention, the rest of the Bahrain Thirteen still behind bars and the General-Secretary of the country’s largest opposition bloc al-Wefaq Sheikh Ali Salman recently sentenced to four years in prison for inciting “hatred” and “disobedience” against the regime, the entire leadership of Bahrain’s political opposition is now in jail.
Other prominent figures have also faced reprisals from the government in recent weeks, including Al-Wefaq board member Majeed Milad who was detained in early July in relation to his participation in a political seminar. Another opposition leader, Fadhel Abbas, who heads the Al-Wahdawi political society, was sentenced to five years in prison on June 28 for criticising the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen. The imprisoned Al-Wefaq leader’s deputy Khalil Al-Marzouq was also summoned by the Ministry of Interior on June 30 for questioning about a speech he gave.
The United States responded to the wave of arrests by issuing a statement of concern and calling for the government of Bahrain to “protect the universal rights of free expression and assembly.” The United Kingdom, however, has remained silent. Its recent statements on Bahrain have failed to call for the release of political prisoners and even criticised Al-Wefaq for boycotting parliamentary elections last November which it bizarrely deemed “transparent.” As the crackdown on the political opposition continues to intensify, Britain’s behaviour will provide little incentive for the government of Bahrain to reverse course and engage in meaningful reform and dialogue. On the contrary, it may embolden the regime and encourage more repression.