BY JON GAMBRELL
A prominent Shiite cleric in Bahrain who led a now-shuttered
opposition party was acquitted Thursday of spying charges with two
colleagues, marking a rare victory for activists in the island kingdom
amid a yearslong clampdown on dissent.
Sheikh Ali Salman headed the Al-Wefaq political party, the largest
Shiite opposition group in the kingdom, and served as a central figure
in Bahrain's 2011 Arab Spring protests.
A lawyer previously involved with Salman's case, Abdulla al-Shamlawi,
said the cleric would be released after he finished serving some four
years in prison in another case widely criticized internationally.
"It is defusing unnecessary circumstances," al-Shamlawi said. "It is very good."
Bahrain's government and state-run media did not immediately comment
on the court's verdict.
Salman, 52, long has been targeted by Bahrain's government. In 1994,
he was arrested, tortured and detained for months without trial before
being deported and forced to live in exile for over 15 years,
according to the United Nations.
He was a prominent figure in Bahrain's Arab Spring protests in 2011,
in which the island's Shiite majority and others demanded more
freedoms from the Sunni monarchy.
In December 2014, two days after being re-elected as Al-Wefaq's
secretary-general, Salman was again arrested by security forces. This
time, prosecutors brought him to trial on charges he insulted the
Interior Ministry, which oversees police, incited others to break the
law and incited hatred against naturalized Sunni citizens, many of
whom serve in the island's security forces. While Bahrain's
constitution guarantees freedom of expression, authorities routinely
arrest and charge activists over their comments.
The U.N.'s Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions issued a report in
November 2015 criticizing the arrest and calling for Salman's release.
The report also described its decision as "only one of several
opinions that have found Bahrain to be in violation of its
international human rights obligations."
In Thursday's case, Salman and two other officials from Al-Wefaq,
Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali al-Aswad, faced spying
charges. The charges came after Bahrain state television in August
aired recorded telephone calls between Salman and Qatar's then-Prime
Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani during the 2011 protests. It
remains unclear who gave state television the recordings, though
activists suspect the island's intelligence services leaked the call.
Bahrain is one of four Arab countries that have been boycotting Qatar
for over a year as part of a wider diplomatic dispute.
The call between Salman and the Qatari official at the time were aimed
at peacefully resolving the 2011 protests, which ended when Bahraini,
Emirati and Saudi security forces violently put down the