Money-laundering trial of Bahrain’s senior Shiite cleric postponed

The cleric and two other unnamed suspects face charges of “illegal fundraising, money laundering and financial transactions to conceal their source and add legitimacy to them”, according to court prosecutor, Haroon Alzayani.
Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s top Shiite Muslim cleric. Hasan Jamali / file, Associated Press
Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s top Shiite Muslim cleric. Hasan Jamali / file, Associated Press

ABU DHABI // A new court hearing in the money laundering trial of Bahrain’s most senior Shiite cleric has been set for September 26.

A hearing in Bahrain’s high criminal court had been scheduled for September 15, but the court adjourned the trial for two weeks to allow more time for the defence attorney of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s majority Shiite population, to prepare his arguments, the country’s state news agency reported.

The cleric has been charged along with two other unnamed suspects of “illegal fundraising, money laundering and financial transactions to conceal their source and add legitimacy to them”, according to the court prosecutor, Haroon Alzayani.

The court has not provided any details of the charges, but some observers have speculated they may be related to “khums” donations that some Shiites pay to senior religious figures. A government statement issued in June when it revoked Mr Qassim’s citizenship said he “collected funds without complying with the provisions of the law”.

Mr Qassim is considered the spiritual leader of the now banned opposition Wefaq National Islamic Society political bloc and supported calls for greater civil, political and economic rights for Bahrain’s Shiites during protests that began in 2011. But his own political goals were focused on strengthening the role of Shiite clerics over Shiite family law, and did not call for the abolition of the monarchy or radical political reform, said Jane Kinninmont, a Gulf researcher and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House.

However, Mr Qassim was stripped of his citizenship just days after Bahrain suspended Wefaq and froze its assets. A month earlier, Wefaq’s leader, Ali Salman, who was convicted in 2015 of incitement against the government, had his sentence lengthened to nine years from four, for “crimes of promoting change to the political system by force”.

The government accuses Mr Qassim of exploiting “the religious pulpit for political purposes to serve foreign interests” and encouraging “sectarianism and violence”.

It unclear which particular statements or actions triggered the revocation of citizenship, but the broader crackdown against opposition groups and figures and reduced political space this year have come in a shifting domestic and regional context.

“A lot of people have been asking why this is happening now five years on, when there hasn’t been a major move by the opposition that seems to have triggered it,” Ms Kinninmont said.

While the US secretary of state John Kerry said in July that he was “deeply concerned” about the dissolving of Wefaq and the revocation of Mr Qassim’s citizenship, Washington has reduced its criticism of Bahrain’s policies towards the opposition since Wefaq boycotted elections in 2014. Restrictions on US arms sales to Bahrain were lifted in June after the state department certified “meaningful progress” on human rights.

Bahrain hosts the US navy’s Fifth Fleet, and is a member of the US-led coalition against ISIL. The GCC’s partnership with the US and other western countries against the extremist group, as well as the chaos and violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya have meant that the domestic political environment in Bahrain is less of a priority in western capitals.

This has particularly been the case since the opposition ignored US warnings and boycotted the 2014 elections. The failed negotiations between Wefaq and Bahrain’s crown prince, who supported a political compromise, led to a major weakening of the opposition movement and less support within the government for reconciliation. “In 2011 there was a crackdown against the opposition because it had become very strong,” Ms Kinninmont said. “Now it’s the other way around – the opposition has become quite weak.”

The increase in regional sectarian tensions, fuelled by the war in Syria and the broader Iran-Saudi rivalry, has also created political space for the government to take action against figures like Mr Qassim who it considers linked to Iran. Previously, Sunni Islamist parties might have protested against the revocation of his citizenship for the precedent it set, Ms Kinninmont said, but none have criticised the move.

Bahrain’s government has said Iran supplies weapons and explosives to militants in the country. These fears were underscored when the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, which conducts foreign operations, Major General Qassem Soleimani, said in June that stripping Mr Qassim of citizenship “would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance”.

Even though the main religious authority for most of Bahrain’s Shiites is Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, Tehran tries to exploit domestic politics in Gulf countries by posing as the defender of all Shiites. “In fact there are many Bahraini Shia who feel this is extremely unhelpful and whenever Iran supports their cause it reinforces the fear that they are somehow not proper Bahraini citizens,” Ms Kinninmont said.

tkhan@thenational.ae

Published: September 16, 2016 04:00 AM

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