Bahrain's Leading Shiite Cleric Dies

The Associated Press
Monday, December 18, 2006; 10:56 AM

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Sheik Abdul-Ameer al-Jamri, a spiritual leader of Bahrain's Shiite opposition who was jailed after riots against the country's Sunni leadership, died Monday of heart and kidney failure. He was 67.

Shiites across the tiny island state went into deep mourning, hanging black flags and banners outside their houses and pasting pictures of al-Jamri on walls and car windows.

Though he was freed from prison in 1999, the government still regarded the cleric as a divisive figure and Bahraini state radio and television ignored his death on their news bulletins. Word of his death quickly got around, however, with many Bahrainis receiving the news in cell phone text messages.

"He was a father figure for Shiite Bahrainis," said his son, Mansour al-Jamri, a leading columnist and editor at the independent Alwasat newspaper. "His legacy will start today. He had great influence during his life."

A local rights group, HAQ _ the Movement of Liberties and Democracy_ described al-Jamri as "the spiritual father" of Bahrainis and a person "who struggled for real constitutional citizenship where people live in peace without distinction between Sunnis and Shiites."

Essa Amin, a Bahraini historian, said al-Jamri had played an important role as a lawmaker "representing the Shiites as well as the national opposition in general."

Kuwait's senior Shiite cleric, Mohammed Baqer al-Mohri, said Bahrainis "will feel a big vacuum after losing a fatherly figure and a great Muslim leader who directed them to demand freedoms and democracy."

Although his poor health had kept him out of active politics for several years, al-Jamri remained a spiritual mentor to the main opposition party, al-Wefaq, which won 17 of the parliament's 40 seats in last month's elections.

He served in Bahrain's first parliament in 1973-75, which was dissolved by the emir.

Twenty years later he became the religious leader of the Shiites' campaign for the restoration of democracy and equal rights. Shiites form a slight majority of Bahrain's 700,000 citizens, but the royal family is Sunni Muslim. Shiites have long complained that they suffer discrimination, particularly at the higher levels of government.

Their campaign turned violent in 1994 when arsonists set fire to buildings and protesters clashed with security forces in the streets. More than 40 people died.

In 1996 the authorities detained al-Jamri for 3 1/2 years on charges of espionage and incitement, keeping him in solitary confinement.

In July 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. But he was pardoned the next day by the new emir, the current King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who was beginning the program of political reform that led to new parliamentary elections in 2002.

© 2006 The Associated Press