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Bahrain: Shia imam detained after calling for release of political prisoners

Sheikh Muhammad Sanqour was detained Monday after raising concerns in sermon over mistreatment of prisoners
Bahraini Sheikh Muhammad Sanqour speaking during a sermon (Alwefaq)

There has been mounting anger in Bahrain over the arrest of a senior Shia imam who called for the release of political prisoners in the kingdom.

Muhammad Sanqour, a senior religious leader at the Imam Sadiq Grand Mosque in the village of Diraz, was summoned by the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) on Monday.

A few hours later, a statement from the interior ministry said his case was being referred to the Public Prosecution Office (OPP) over “repeated inflammatory speeches that included legal violations" and "publicly inciting hatred and contempt for a group of people."

Although they did not specify, the arrest is believed to be linked to comments made last week during Friday prayers in which he raised concerns about the mistreatment of prisoners in the kingdom's jails.

“We call upon the relevant authorities to reassure the families of prisoners about their loved ones, as it has come to their knowledge that a number of prisoners have been subjected to abuse and physical violence. Some have been subjected to isolation, solitary confinement, and deprivation of adequate healthcare," he said during his sermon.

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"We also call to resolve this humanitarian concern by releasing all prisoners. Closing this chapter has a significant impact on spreading an atmosphere of optimism and relieving tension.”

Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, Bahrain has seen the mass arrest of pro-democracy demonstrators and politicians, as well as religious figures supportive of the movement.

There have been repeated reports by human rights activists and foreign observers of abuse and mistreatment in Bahraini jails.

In its statement, the interior ministry warned that the "clock cannot be turned back" in the kingdom and that "everyone must preserve the important security and national gains that have been achieved”.

Al-Wefaq, a Shia party that was the largest opposition group in Bahrain before the government dissolved it in 2016, posted videos on Twitter appearing to show demonstrations outside Sanqour's house.

In the tweet, al-Wefaq said Sanquor was being persecuted because of "his objection in the Friday sermon to changing the school curricula to appease the Zionists".

Bahrain signed a recognition agreement with Israel in 2020 after US-backed negotiations, a move that has sparked anger from pro-Palestinian groups in Bahrain.

“Arresting one of the top Shia clerics in the country over his Friday prayers speech reveals the truth about the authorities’ claim of religious tolerance and freedom of religion," said Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), in a statement.

"Sheikh al-Sanqour is one of many cases of the persecution of Shia religious clerics who dares to speak inconvenient truth to those in power. We call on the government to release him immediately, end this censorship and guarantee freedom of expression and religion.”

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