WHEN BAHRAIN announced a decision Monday to strip the citizenship of a leading Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, it accused him of “creating an extremist sectarian environment” and claimed he had “encouraged sectarianism and violence.” In fact, Bahrain’s ruling monarchy and government are the ones fomenting division. In recent weeks, they also dissolved the main Shiite opposition group, al-Wefaq, of which Sheik Qassim was the spiritual leader.
These and other repressive measures taken lately are likely to backfire. Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy in the Persian Gulf that hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet, has been cracking heads of the opposition ever since the Arab Spring broke out five years ago and has harshly repressed those who sought a greater political voice for the country’s Shiite majority. The latest actions take the ruling al-Khalifa family still farther down the road of despotism and could trigger new waves of protest. The leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps immediately vowed to stir up an armed revolt.
Bahrain’s decision means that Sheik Qassim could be deported. Human Rights Watch said the authorities have produced no evidence to support the charges against him. Since July 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bahrain has stripped more than 250 people of their citizenship, a pernicious form of punishment.
At the same time, on May 30, a court in Bahrain more than doubled the prison sentence imposed by a lower court on opposition leader Sheik Ali Salman, from four to nine years. As secretary general of the now-defunct al-Wefaq, which was the country’s largest legally recognized opposition political group, he had given speeches explicitly repudiating the use of force and calling for nonviolence, but he was nonetheless found guilty of having “justified acts of violence and sabotage, provoking regime change and calling for Jihad as a form of religious duty.” Human Rights Watch said the court ignored videos of his speeches and may have relied instead on a government report that misrepresented what he said.
Also alarming, the authorities on June 13 detained the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab and on June 21 extended his imprisonment for eight days, on charges of “spreading false news . . . in a bid to discredit Bahrain.”
The kingdom had promised reforms after the crackdown of 2011 but largely failed to deliver. A report by the State Department just sent to Congress says that Bahrain did establish some institutions of accountability and oversight but has fallen down on the vital issues of allowing free speech and assembly, and establishing due process. Last year, the Obama administration lifted some holds on military sales to Bahrain. Perhaps this sent a signal to the king and his regime that there would be no further consequences from Washington if they pummeled the opposition again. At the very least, it is time to send a different signal — if necessary by holding up U.S. military sales — that Bahrain’s contempt for dissent and basic human rights is intolerable.