Middle East Crisis Deepens As Bahrain’s Opposition Leader Accused Of Being ‘Qatar’s Spy’ Jailed For Life

Sheikh Ali Salman is known for his activism against the Bahraini royal family.

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa
Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Sheikh Ali Salman is known for his activism against the Bahraini royal family.

With news reports in Turkey on Sunday morning claiming that murdered journalist Jamal Khahsoggi’s body had been transported in suitcases from Istanbul, another major news story developing in the Middle East threatens to undo peace in the region, according to BBC.

Sheikh Ali Salman, who is the most important opposition leader in Bahrain, an Islamic country ruled by a royal family not wholly different from Saudi Arabia, has been imprisoned for life after being accused of spying for Qatar.

Middle Eastern allies Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE cut off economic ties with Qatar last year after claiming that the country was funding terrorist groups in collaboration with Iran. Although Qatar denies the claims vigorously, Bahrain’s public prosecutor said that the country intends to overthrow their constitutional order and “colluded” with Sheikh Ali Salman to reach that end.

But human rights groups allege that Bahrain — like Saudi Arabia — is trying to stifle dissent because of Sheikh Ali Salman’s activism. Ali Salman is the leader of the outlawed Al-Wefaq movement, a campaign mostly consisting of members from Bahrain’s majority community, Shia, who accuse the Sunni-run Al Khalifa royal family of running a heavy-handed dictatorship.

Human rights group Amnesty described Sheikh Ali Salman’s prison sentence as a “travesty of justice” and called the decision a continuation of Bahrain’s “crackdown on dissent”.

“This verdict… demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent,” Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director Heba Morayef told BBC.

“Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.”

Earlier this year, the Bahraini High Court of First Tier had acquitted Sheikh Ali Salman of all charges against him, but on Saturday, the country’s Court of Appeal overturned that order and ruled that the opposition leader had been planning a coup with Qatari officials. It is not clear what evidence the prosecution presented, but observers around the world are getting increasingly concerned with how first Saudi Arabia and now Bahrain are stifling dissenters, even as USA president Donald Trump pushes ahead with further sanctions on Iran.

Sheikh Ali Salman’s movement called for Bahrain to institutionalize democracy with a new constitution that would allow monarchy and an elected prime minister. Although there is a serving prime minister in the country, he is not elected and belongs to the Al Khalifa family, which has ruled the Middle Eastern island nation since its independence in 1971.