Bahrain opposition leader sentenced to life in prison for alleged spying

Sheikh Ali Salman, head Bahrain's banned political opposition group al-Wefaq, in Manama, Bahrain. Photograph:( Agencia EFE )

Agencia EFE Bahrain Nov 05, 2018, 10.36 AM (IST)

A Bahraini opposition leader and Shia Muslim cleric was sentenced on Sunday to life in prison by the Supreme Court of Appeals for allegedly spying for Qatar, overturning an earlier acquittal by a lower court, Bahrain's office of the public prosecutor announced.

Sheikh Ali Salman, who heads the banned political opposition group al-Wefaq, along with fellow opposition leaders Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali Alaswad had their June acquittals overturned, although a member of their legal defense said an appeal was in the works.

"The defense team will appeal the decision before the Court of Cassation (Bahrain's final court of appeal)," one of Salman's lawyers, who asked not to be identified, told EFE following the trial without giving further details.

These sentences come in the run-up to parliamentary and municipal elections in Bahrain, scheduled for November 24, in which the main opposition parties such as al-Wefaq are not allowed to take part.

According to the prosecutor's office, the three opposition members had allegedly maintained contacts with Qatari intelligence services since 2010, passing on sensitive information in exchange for financial compensation, and had spread rumors through the Qatari news channel Al Jazeera to allegedly provoke chaos and the overthrow Bahrain's government.

In response to the ruling, Amnesty International said "This verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities' relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent," according to a statement from Middle East and North Africa Director Heba Morayef.

Salman was already sentenced to four years in prison in 2015 for allegedly insulting the interior ministry, inciting hatred and calling for disobedience, and his sentence was extended to nine years in 2016 for supposedly attempting to overthrow the government.

The espionage charges were first made in the midst of the diplomatic crisis that broke out in June 2017 between Qatar and four Arab countries, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Bahraini authorities, with the help of military forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, crushed the 2011 popular uprising led by the country's Shia Muslim majority, which has long felt discriminated against by the Sunni Muslim monarchy.