Simeon Kerr in Dubai
Simeon Kerr in Dubai
Bahrain has stripped the nationality of the Gulf state’s most senior Shia cleric as the Sunni monarchy deepens a crackdown on dissent.
The official news agency, quoting the interior ministry, on Monday said Sheikh Isa Qassim’s nationality had been revoked for encouraging sectarianism and violence. It said the cleric had exploited “the religious pulpit for political purposes [and] to serve foreign interests”.
Hundreds of chanting demonstrators gathered at his home in the village of Duraz, with some of the protesters wearing white coffin shrouds, signifying their willingness to die.
The protest raised fears of a return to the large-scale demonstrations led by the majority Shia against minority Sunni rule that brought the country to a standstill in 2011.
Saudi Arabia led Gulf troops into Bahrain in March of that year to back the government’s brutal quashing of the demonstrations. Sunni Gulf states are fearful that the opposition’s democracy drive would undermine the ruling Al Khalifa family.
The pro-democracy movement in Bahrain has been caught up in the sectarian cold war pitting Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran, with Riyadh accusing Tehran of dabbling in Arab conflict zones such as Syria and Yemen.
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The move against such a senior and respected religious figure threatens another rise in sectarian discord, which could spark further protests and a wider crackdown in response.
Iranian officials criticised the decision. The Fars News Agency said Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s revolutionary guards, warned of repercussions, which included “”the toppling of the regime” and “armed resistance”.
Sheikh Isa, whose sermons on the outskirts of the capital Manama attract thousands of worshippers every week, is a spiritual leader for majority Shia of Bahrain.
The government, stung by international criticism after the Arab uprising, says it has reformed security and judicial procedures to prevent abuses, but the opposition describes these changes as superficial and says repression is rife.
“The decision to strip Sheikh Isa Qassim of his citizenship takes Bahrain into the darkest days it has seen since the protests and crackdown of 2011,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The Bahraini authorities are shutting the door on political reform, while simultaneously stoking dissent. These actions should be met with serious consequences, not expressions of concern.”
Opposition members feel the government is willing to accelerate its crackdown on dissent because it believes it will only face minimal censure through statements of concern in the US and Europe. Both the US and UK have large naval bases in Bahrain.
Last week, the government suspended the main Shia opposition party, al-Wefaq, accusing it of having links to foreign terrorists and inciting hatred. Sheikh Ali Salman, al-Wefaq’s secretary-general, was arrested in 2014 on charges of inciting violence. His sentence was doubled to nine years on appeal last month.
The citizen act of 1963 allows the government to strip the nationality of anyone who “causes damage to the interest of the state”.
The cabinet decided to revoke the citizenship of Sheikh Isa — an indigenous Bahraini who applied for nationality to get a passport in the 1960s — after a presentation by the interior ministry, the news agency reported. The lack of judicial oversight raised concerns among rights groups.
Stripping the nationality of dissidents has become a popular tool for Gulf states battling domestic dissent, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, where nationality is perceived by many as a privilege not a right.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says more than 250 Bahrainis, many of whom are of Shia Iranian origin, have been stripped of their nationality for alleged disloyalty.