By Lauren Mellinger
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
17 February 2009
MANAMA, Bahrain – On February 13, seven Shiite political activists began a hunger strike demanding that the Bahraini government release suspects detained in police custody. The government alleges that those currently held in anticipation of a trial scheduled to begin on February 23, were conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack on December 17, 2008, Bahrain’s National Day.
While predominantly Shia, Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni minority. Over the past year the country has experienced an increase in sectarian violence as the Sunni population has adopted measures designed to change the demographic make-up of the country by increasing the size of the Sunni population, while further marginalizing the poorer Shia majority. The arrest and detention of 35 members of prominent Shia political organizations in connection with allegations of terrorism has fueled widespread protests among Bahrain’s Shia population, highlighting economic disparities between Bahraini Sunnis and Shia’s, as well as increase in the government’s repression of the Shia’s religious and political freedoms.
According to the government, those currently detained in connection with the terror plot, were conspiring to carry out a coup to overthrow the government. Authorities allege that the plot called for an ambush of local police, the destruction of public property, and indiscriminate attacks against civilians in shopping malls, markets and hotels using improvised explosive devices.
Earlier this month, a major demonstration organized by several political organizations in the country including Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, National Democratic Action Society, the Islamic Action Society and the National Brotherhood Society, was canceled after organizers were denied permission to demonstrate in a public square in Manama.
35 people have been detained on charges including “formation of an illegal group”, “attempting to change the political regime by force” and “possessing explosives.” If they are convicted they will face long prison sentences.
Among those participating in the hunger strike are Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, former president of the now defunct Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and Dr. Abduljalil Al Singace, Media and International Relations Director for the Haq Movement for Liberties and Democracy. Haq, which was founded in 2005, is the largest Shia political organization in Bahrain. The government has arrested several prominent members of Haq in connection with December’s terror plot. Dr. Al Singace was arrested in January after police raided his home in the middle of the night. Although police released Dr. Singace after one day, his co-accused remain in custody.
The seven individuals participating in the hunger strike, which will take place in the home of one of the activist’s, released a statement indicating that they are hoping their protest will highlight “the deteriorating situation in Bahrain,” and “call for the release of political prisoners, in particular Hassan Mesheima and Mohammed al Moqdad.”