November 11, 2016
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla began wrapping up their trip to Bahrain on Friday, as a leader in the island’s secular opposition warned their visit could “whitewash” an ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Ebrahim Sharif of the Waad Party, who himself has been detained by the island’s Sunni rulers, said he hoped the Prince of Wales brought up human rights issues behind closed doors with leaders here. “The government may listen,” he told The Associated Press. “They need friends.”
Bahrain, a small island off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, put down Arab Spring protests in 2011 with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The protests were backed by the Shiite majority and others, and were aimed at demanding more political freedoms from the ruling Al Khalifa family.
While low-level unrest persisted for years, things remained largely peaceful until April, when Bahrain’s military announced it was “ready to deal firmly and with determination with these sedition groups and their heads” after a gasoline bomb killed a police officer.
Since then, authorities suspended the country’s largest Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, and doubled a prison sentence for its secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman. Famed activist Nabeel Rajab was imprisoned and now awaits sentencing on a charge of spreading “false news.” Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of well-known activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who himself is serving a life sentence over his role in the 2011 protests, was forced into exile.
Meanwhile, the country’s security forces have besieged a small town home to a Shiite cleric who had his citizenship stripped by the government earlier this year. On their visit, Prince Charles and Camilla have been kept far away from the island’s trouble areas. However, they visited the British Embassy on Thursday night, where black Shiite flags were visible as those inside enjoyed drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
Sharif said Bahrain’s opposition was both “flexible and realistic,” wanting only power-sharing with the country’s monarchy. However, he said those demands had been greeted with travel bans and other harassment.
He warned Bahrain’s financial crisis, worsening as the price of oil remains low, could push things further into danger here. “Without reform, we are in a very bad situation,” he said.