A young Bahraini boy holds a poster portraying Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the main opposition movement al-Wefaq, during a demonstration against his arrest in his home village of Bilad al-Qadeem, on the outskirts of the capital Manama on February 6, 2015. AFP/Mohammed al-Shaikh
Bahrain has opened a criminal investigation of the country’s main opposition group, the Interior Ministry said on Tuesday, accusing the al-Wefaq group of trying to undermine national security.
The Interior Ministry said on its website that its General Directorate of Anti-corruption and Economic and Electronic Security had referred al-Wefaq to the public prosecutor after it documented violations that represent “criminal offences” under Bahraini laws.
It said these violations, published on al-Wefaq’s Twitter account and on its website, included “incitement to hatred against the ruling system and circulating false news to undermine civil peace and national security.”
An al-Wefaq spokesman said the group had no details about the case.
“No one has been contacted or notified about a case against the society,” Sayyed Taher al-Musawi, head of al-Wefaq’s media department, told Reuters.
A rights activist said the move was motivated by political considerations.
“We do not believe at all that such actions have any basis rather than political grounds,” said Nader al-Salatna, acting president of Bahrain Youth Society, a local rights group.
The news come two days after a Bahrain appeals court upheld a six-month prison sentence against Jamil Kazem, a former parliament member and president of al-Wefaq’s consultative council, handed down last month over tweets about election financing.
Kazem was also fined 500 dinars ($1,350) on charges of making false allegations that undermined national elections, more specifically that some candidates were paid money to run in last November’s parliamentary elections which were boycotted by the opposition.
He is one of several opposition figures to have been jailed for tweets or public remarks in recent months, in what opposition officials say is a campaign by authorities to crack down on the opposition which is demanding political and economic reforms.
Political activists have been prosecuted by Bahraini authorities for attempting to voice out and expose gross human rights violations by the al-Khalifa ruling family, which has been in power for over 200 years.
Crackdown on dissent has spiked in the past years in the country where insulting the king is a felony. In April, Bahrain’s cabinet endorsed an amendment to article 214 of the penal code to increase from two to five years the maximum sentence for such a “crime.”
Last month, al-Wefaq’s head, Sheikh Ali Salman, regarded as the country’s most senior opposition leader, went on trial on charges of promoting the violent overthrow of the political system, a case that has riled his followers and inflamed unrest in the Gulf Arab state.
Salman had denied all the charges and said he had been calling for reforms in Bahrain through legal and peaceful means.
Al-Wefaq said in January the charges against Salman lack credibility, “as he is known to be a prominent advocate of peace and reform.”
Salman’s “continued detention will only deepen the gap between the regime and the people. It demonstrates the regime’s inability to coexist with its people, who have continued to call for their universal political rights under a security fist, for decades,” the statement added.
Al-Wefaq boycotted a parliamentary election last year partly because it said voting districts favored the Sunni minority in power in the majority Shia kingdom.
Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet is based, has been in turmoil since mass protests in 2011 called for a “real” constitutional monarchy with an elected prime minister who is independent of the ruling royal family and demanded reforms and a bigger share in government.
With the help of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors, authorities crushed the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that began on February 14, 2011, in a crackdown that led to accusations of serious human rights violations.
At least 93 people are estimated to have been killed and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the uprising erupted.
Bahrain says it has implemented wide reforms and accuses the opposition of making unreasonable demands.
Over the weekend that marked the fourth anniversary of the uprising, protesters took to the streets as police fired tear gas and sound bombs and beefed up security around several villages and along major roads across the country.
According to the weekly statistics of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, a total of 113 citizens were arrested from February 9 to 15, including 19 children. Twenty five detained were released later.
In its 2014 annual report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the ombudsman’s office established in Bahrain since 2011 in the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigations Unit in the Public Prosecution Office that have been almost useless so far.
Neither of these offices have taken any measures to hold senior officials accountable for human rights abuses or address what the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) characterized as a “culture of impunity.”