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Bahraini activist warns of new wave of violence amid repression

Maytham al-Salman said continuing repression and lack of reforms in kingdom could push a frustrated population towards violence
Activists deal with a tear gas canister in Bahrain (AFP)

LONDON - A leading Bahraini human rights campaigner has warned that civilians could lose hope for "peaceful reconciliation" if the government refuses to halt its crackdown on dissent, as the last major opposition party in the kingdom faces closure.

"In countries where freedom of expression is restricted, where there is political, social and economic exclusion for the majority of the population, where there is no space for civil society, obviously the frustration levels grow," said Maytham al-Salman, speaking to Middle East Eye in London.

"So when we have a country with a high frustration level, it's very likely to see incidents of violence."

"In order to counter violence and to counter messages which could provoke violence, one of the best strategies is to try to defuse frustration - frustration cannot be defused when you have 65 percent of the religious demography in Bahrain who feel they are fourth-class citizens rather than being citizens with equal rights."

Maytham's comments come as the Bahrain public prosecutor summoned 12 leading opposition figures and human rights activists for investigation, while a number of others faced travel bans, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR).

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Plans are also underway to dissolve the National Democratic Action Society (Wa'ad), the main left-wing secular opposition organisation in the kingdom, a move which comes on the back of the dissolution of al-Wefaq, previously the largest opposition group.

Al-Wasat, the only independent newspaper in the country, has faced repeated suspensions. Sheikh Issa Qassem, the most senior Shia cleric in Bahrain, was stripped of citizenship in June for "serving foreign interests", referring to Iran, which the government has repeatedly blamed for fomenting unrest in the kingdom.

On Monday, Ebrahim Sharif and his wife Farida Ghulam, the leaders of Waad, were charged with taking part in an illegal gathering in the village of Duraz, where there has been a state of "siege" according to activists, over sit-ins established to protest the revoking of Issa Qassem's nationality.

With so much of the opposition in prison or marginalised, Maytham - who is a prominent Bahraini religious leader and serves on a committee of the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect - acknowledged the situation looked bleak.

"It is very hard at this moment to see something approaching" that could break the current deadlock, he said.

"The government might be banking on the 2018 elections," he suggested.

"However, they are completely mistaken if they believe that with the ongoing human rights violations, the crackdown on civil society, undermining the entire non-state society, thousands in prison, torture and ill-treatment for prisoners - it's almost impossible to encourage Bahrainis to have a positive interaction with the elections."

He added that he would be travelling from the UK to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council (OHCHR) universal periodic review at the Hague, a session reviewing what actions have been taken by individual states to improve the human rights situation in their countries. Although he would be attending, Maytham expressed concern about the travel restrictions placed on other Bahraini activists trying to get to the Hague.

"We had 47 attendees who participated in the last meeting from Bahrain," he pointed out. "I do not believe even one or two independent human rights defenders will be allowed to travel to the next meeting.

"It shows ... how things have gotten worse in Bahrain from 2012 to 2017."

'A new travel ban'

Maytham has himself faced repeated pressure from the Bahraini authorities - he previously was the subject of a travel ban and was charged with "illegal gathering" in relation to the open-ended sit-in in Duraz. Though he plans to return to Bahrain after speaking at the UN, he suspected he would face similar threats to other government critics.

"I have been very vocal in denouncing all forms of violence and excessive use of force by authorities," he said. "So after more than a year with a travel ban and with all these harassments, it's a logical conclusion to know that the moment I step back into Bahrain a new travel ban will be imposed on me if I'm not held in prison like my cousin Nabeel Rajab."

He was also critical of investment from the UK government into institutional reform in Bahrain, a process which has been nominally ongoing since 2011, when demonstrations rocked the kingdom against the rule of the Khalifa monarchy.

The Guardian newspaper revealed in January that Bahraini authorities will in 2017 receive a further £2m of British funding on top of millions already spent in aid on the country. In 2016, £2.1m in "reform assistance" was spent on the kingdom, a package heavily criticised by activists due to £500,000 being allocated for "public order", assumed to be a euphemism for excessive policing powers.

When we have a country with a high frustration level, it's very likely to see incidents of violence

- Maytham al-Salman, human rights activist

"We were supportive and thankful to the UK government for supporting initiatives like the National Institute of Human Rights and the Special Investigation Unit, which were supported by the UK government - and the UK people, because it’s their tax money at the end of the day supporting these initiatives."

But he pointed out that the UK-backed National Institute of Human Rights in Manama had been among the first to support the execution of three Bahrainis in January over the killing of an Emirati police officer and two Bahraini police officers in a 2014 bomb attack. The UK government's official position on the death penalty is to oppose it worldwide.

"These projects were meant to build confidence and to assist in change and to limit the number of human rights violations which were systematic at that time. So the big question that needs to be raised is: did the UK receive a return on their investment in projects and these initiatives?"

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