Bahraini authorities have put a prominent human rights lawyer on trial for charges that include inciting against Sunni Islam, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today, in a further crackdown on Shia groups deemed suspect by the Arab Gulf monarchy.
The New York-based rights group said that Mohammed Al-Tajer, who has defended opposition figures and activists involved in violent protests in 2011, seen as being pro-Iran, was questioned by the public prosecutor on 10 November for inciting hatred of a religious sect and misusing a telecommunications appliance.
No date has been set for a trial. Al-Tajer faces prison sentences totalling more than five years if convicted.
Public prosecutors had cited a private WhatsApp voice message sent in early 2016 in which 50-year-old Al-Tajer said that the country’s public prosecution was employing surveillance teams to intercept “every word about Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, hatred of the regime, or insults against the king,” HRW quoted his lawyer as saying.
“Al-Tajer is facing charges because he stated the obvious: Bahraini authorities are snooping on their citizens and anyone who steps out of line online faces jail time,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
Host to the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is seen by other Sunni Muslim-ruled Gulf states like Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against the influence of their Shia adversary Iran, who has been busy expanding its power and influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen since the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled in 2003.
Bahraini Shia say the Sunni Muslim-dominated government discriminates against them, while authorities deny that and say opposition politicians are trying to undermine security.
A few months prior to the outbreak of demonstrations calling for the downfall of the monarchy in 2011, the Shia Al-Wefaq religious political party actually won a parliamentary majority in elections, leading some to question how Shia Bahrainis could decide after such a short time with a parliamentary majority that the system needed to be overthrown.
Al-Tajer in July was added to a list of Bahrainis including activists, journalists and lawyers, who are banned from travelling abroad, part of a series of measures authorities have been using against opponents connected to the 2011 violence.
These included closing down the main Shia opposition group Al-Wefaq and revoking the citizenship of top Shia cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who has been accused of inciting against the Sunnis and the Bahraini monarchy.
Rights groups including Amnesty International have criticised the kingdom’s lack of an independent judiciary and accused its security forces of committing torture and other forms of ill-treatment with impunity.