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Bahrain Snapshot: The 21 Prison Sentences and the Regime's Strategy (Desmukh)

Photo: APFahad Desmukh writes for Foreign Policy magazine:

A military tribunal in Bahrain has sentenced eight prominent opposition activists to life imprisonment and 13 others to lesser prison sentences, on charges of seeking to topple the monarchy and collaborating with a foreign terrorist group, among a host of other charges.

The group was arrested in March as part of the Saudi-backed security crackdown on pro-reform protesters who had occupied the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama. Most of those sentenced are leaders or sympathizers of a coalition formed during the uprising that advocated the establishment of a republic and an end to the 200-year-old Sunni monarchy.

One of the sentenced men is Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular left-of-center Waad party, which never called for a republic but rather for a transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy.

The sentencing comes just a week before the launch of a "national dialogue" by the government to discuss reforms in the country.

Due to the closed nature of the military tribunal, it is not exactly clear what evidence was provided to prove that the men were guilty of the charges against them. There's no doubt that all except Sharif openly called for the fall of the Al Khalifa regime. But there is no proof that they planned to use violence or that they were being aided by a foreign terrorist group (read Hezbollah and Iran).

If the government did have evidence to prove its claims, you can be sure that it would have already been broadcast on Bahrain's state TV network during the televised witch trials that take place every night in parallel to the one in court.

Government spokespersons have repeated in the media ad nauseam the claim that the defendants, and specifically Hassan Mushaima, called for the establishment of an "Islamic Republic" à la Iran. Once again, no evidence has yet been provided to prove this allegation, even though all their speeches at the Pearl Roundabout are publicly available online. In fact, there are several videos showing the leaders at Pearl Roundabout calling for unity between Sunni and Shiite and equal rights for people of all religions in the country -- but no statements calling for an Iranian-style theocratic regime.

So why have these individuals been specifically targeted and not some other opposition leaders? From the regime's point of view, these individuals pose far more of a threat than the mainstream Shiite opposition group al-Wefaq, which held 18 of 40 seats in the lower house of parliament, prior to resigning in protest in February.

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