Sheikh Ali Salman. Picture: REUTERS/HAMAD MOHAMMED
Sheikh Ali Salman. Picture: REUTERS/HAMAD MOHAMMED

Bahrain sentenced the head of the country’s Shiite opposition movement to life in prison on Sunday for spying for rival Gulf state Qatar in a ruling rights groups have called a travesty.

Sheikh Ali Salman, who headed the now-banned Al-Wefaq movement, and two of his aides had been acquitted by the high criminal court in June, a verdict the public prosecution appealed against.

The public prosecutor said in a statement that the three had been unanimously sentenced by the appeals court for “acts of hostility” against Bahrain and “communicating with Qatari officials ... to overthrow constitutional order”.

Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE,severed all ties with Qatar in 2017, banning their citizens from travel to or communication with the emirate over its alleged ties to both Iran and radical Islamist groups.

Ruled for more than two centuries by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, Bahrain has been hit by waves of unrest since 2011, when security forces crushed Shiite-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

Opposition movements, both religious and secular, have been outlawed since 2011 and hundreds of dissidents imprisoned — many of them stripped of their citizenship in the process.

Salman’s Al-Wefaq was dissolved by court order in 2016. The cleric is serving a four-year sentence in a separate case — “inciting hatred” in the kingdom.

The leftist opposition National Democratic Action Society, or Al-Waad, was banned the following year over allegations of links to terrorists.

Human rights groups have said cases against activists in Bahrain — men and women, religious and secular — fail to meet the basic standards of fair trials. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch categorise Salman and other jailed opposition leaders as prisoners of conscience.

Advocacy groups, including Amnesty, slammed Sunday’s ruling against the 53-year-old Salman and his aides, Hassan Sultan and Ali al-Aswad as political reprisal.

“This verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director. “Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.”

Bahraini activists said Sunday’s verdict highlighted a broader regional policy towards freedom — the same policy that saw Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered in October.

“Despite the ongoing scrutiny on the Gulf region, with Saudi Arabia being under the spotlight for its brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Bahrain has made a decision that reeks of arrogance,” said Sayed Alwadaei, head of advocacy for the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

The verdict comes ahead of controversial parliamentary elections that Bahrain’s King Hamad has called for November 24.

Dissolved opposition parties, including Al-Wefaq and the secular Al-Waad, do not have the right to put forward their own candidates in the vote.

In 2017 Bahrain ratified an amendment to the constitution granting military courts the authority to try civilians charged with terrorism, a term loosely defined by the country’s penal code.

In June, Bahrain amended its law on political rights, prohibiting “leaders and members of political associations dissolved for violating the kingdom’s constitution or its laws” from running in legislative elections.

Bahrain is a key ally of the US and home to the US Fifth Fleet. The archipelago is also home to a permanent British military base.

US President Donald Trump has eased restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain since taking office. Washington had urged Bahraini authorities not to overturn Salman’s acquittal.

Alistair Burt, the British foreign office’s minister responsible for Middle East affairs, said he was “very concerned” by the life sentence.

Bahraini authorities accuse Shiite Iran of provoking unrest in the kingdom. Iran denies the allegations.