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Bahrain opposition leader calls for UN probe into protest deaths

Al-Wefaq leader says international community has 'legal and moral obligations' to provide protection for anti-government protesters
Bahrainis protest Isa Qassim being stripped of citizenship (AFP)

The acting leader of Bahrain’s opposition has called for a UN investigation in the kingdom following the killing of protesters in the village of Diraz last week.

Five people died when security forces opened fire on demonstrators last Tuesday, shortly before raiding the house of leading Shia cleric Isa Qassim and arresting six people.

Speaking to Middle East Eye, Hussain Aldaihi, deputy general secretary of Al-Wefaq, has accused the Bahraini government of taking "provocative measures" against the protesters, who were demonstrating following the sentencing of Qassim - the highest Shia spiritual authority in the Kingdom - to a suspended one-year jail term for illegal fundraising and money laundering.

"After all these crimes and violations and after the Diraz massacre, is it not high time for the United Nations secretary general to send a special representative to Bahrain?" Aldaihi asked.

He accused the international community of complicity in the killings and the authorities' actions against Qassim.

Hussain Aldaihi, deputy general secretary of Al-Wefaq (Wikiconmons)
"We believe that this latest escalation and the attack against Diraz, as well as the targeting of Ayatollah Qassim, have taken place based on American and British approval, and are a result of the international community’s silence and complicity in the crimes committed against the political majority as well as the majority of the population in Bahrain," he said.

"We believe that the international community must fulfil its legal and moral obligations to defend human rights values by supporting the movement for democracy in Bahrain and by providing international protection for the Bahraini people."

Qassim was stripped of his citizenship last year, sparking an ongoing sit-in outside his residence in the northwestern coastal village of Diraz. It marked just the latest in a series of measures taken against opponents of the Khalifa monarchy, which on Wednesday dissolved Waad, the main secular leftist opposition, for "supporting terrorism".

Aldaihi told Middle East Eye that despite the dissolution of his organisation - once the leading opposition movement in Bahrain - and imprisonment of their general secretary Ali Salman, they would continue their activities against the Khalifa monarchy.

"Al-Wefaq exists and has a wide presence and popular representation," he said. "It also has a popular, regional and geographical dimension among the majority of the people of Bahrain which cannot come to an end or collapse simply by closing a building in which some of the political activities were run under Al-Wefaq’s name or by arresting some of its leaders or restricting their activities."

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"Al-Wefaq will continue to exist as a broad movement, with its men and women, its strong capacities and its firm national programme."

Al-Wefaq was founded in 2001 after the new king, Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, initiated constitutional reforms to remodel the country as a constitutional monarchy. Former political exiles were granted amnesty and a number of new political organisations were allowed to form - although parties, as such, were still prohibited.

Their grassroots support among the Kingdom's majority Shia population has seen them develop into the country's biggest opposition player.

Some have been critical of Al-Wefaq’s political ideology which is ostensibly based on a socially conservative Shia Islamist platform.

The organisation has previously been involved in demonstrations against some of the more liberalising policies of the Bahraini kingdom, and 2006 saw the organisation allying with Sunni Salafist groups against the introduction of a personal status law in the kingdom which would grant greater rights to women and reduce the influence of Sharia courts.

One fear regularly expressed over the prominence of Al-Wefaq in the Bahraini opposition is that their eventual ascension to power could threaten Bahrain’s reputation as a relatively liberal, secular country in the generally ultra-conservative Gulf.

Aldaihi admonished suggestions that Al-Wefaq wanted to introduce Iranian-style Islamic governance into Bahrain, saying their aspirations crossed "different religions, ideologies and doctrines".

"What is strange is that the regime is not questioned about its own ideology, given that it is based on ideology," he said.

"Governance in Bahrain follows a theocratic model under the doctrine of ‘obedience to the ruler’ and not to ballot boxes. It is the regime that should be asked to abandon theocracy, not Al-Wefaq."

All options banned

Despite his optimism, the space for opposition activism in Bahrain is continuing to shrink.

Hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested and killed, often on the pretext of being spies or militants working for Iran, a common enemy in the Gulf.

"In terms of the options available, when the regime bans these political groups, this does not mean that it bans all options open to people," said Aldaihi.

"There is a mass popular movement. There are voices rising inside and outside. Closing down these buildings does not mean the end of these movements and these voices calling for freedom and democracy. The public will continue its peaceful methods of pressure until it achieves its legitimate demands."

Bahraini activists have repeatedly stated their principled opposition to violence, but tensions have often flared up and a sense of hopelessness could push people to desperate measures.

A visit by Donald Trump to the Gulf earlier in May, in which he announced that relations between the Kingdom and the US would no longer be "strained", has indicated that the new US president is unlikely to apply pressure on the country to reform. Similarly, relations with the UK appear to have tightened with the opening last year of a new naval base in Bahrain, despite criticism over human rights abuses.

Last month, a leading Bahraini reform activist, Maytham al-Salman, warned that if frustration continued to mount without the possibility of reform then it was possible that the country could "very likely to see incidents of violence".

Protesters in Diraz (screengrab)

This also followed a call from Murtada al-Sanadi, an exiled Bahraini cleric living in the Iranian city of Qom, for armed "resistance" to the Khalifa monarchy, which has further raised fears about the influence of Iran on the Bahraini opposition.

But despite this, Aldaihi was keen to stress that his organisation was still pursuing non-violent means for change.

"We will remain committed to our peaceful choice, which is based on religious and political understandings," he said.

"However, we have no control over attitudes and ideas that we disagree with, but which we have no power to prevent given the regime’s uncooperative conduct, which bans us from any political activity, from addressing people or being active in society.

"It paralyses our ability to reach the grassroots in order to regulate their behaviour."

He added that, despite opposing violence, peaceful means of resistance were being quashed.

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"What do you expect a peaceful person to do who is imprisoned or besieged in Diraz or whose activities are restricted in public, in the mosque or on Twitter!"

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