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US calls for charges against Bahraini opposition leader to be dropped

Washington urges Bahrain to release jailed al-Wefaq leader Ali Salman and calls on government to respect freedom of expression
Bahraini protesters wave their national flags as they hold portraits of Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the opposition movement Al-Wefaq, during a demonstration against his arrest (AFP)

The US has called for all charges to be dropped against the Bahraini opposition leader Ali Salman, following a decision by the UN to declare his imprisonment arbitrary detention.

“Any charges against Ali Salman that were brought on that basis should be dropped,” said State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Friday, in response a question from a journalist. “We also strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to abide by its commitment to the protection of freedom of expression.”

“We believe that no one anywhere should be prosecuted or imprisoned for engaging in peaceful expression or assembly,” he added.

On Thursday, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) officially declared that it considered Salman, the leader of Bahrain's largest opposition party Al-Wefaq, to have been arbitrarily detained and therefore requested his immediate release.

Salman was jailed for four years in June after being convicted of fomenting hatred and “insulting an official body” leading to strong condemnations from human rights organisations.

Bahraini human rights activists welcomed the ruling by WGAD, echoing the call for Salman to be released.

“The Government of Bahrain subjects hundreds of people to arbitrary detention every year,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).

“This latest decision shows that the international community pays attention, and that the al-Khalifa government will one day answer for its crimes.”

Hundreds of Bahraini opposition activists have been imprisoned since the beginning of demonstrations against the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy in 2011.

Close to 100 people are also thought to have been killed in clashes with security forces.

In spite of accusations of human rights abuses, a number of Western countries maintain a close relationship with Bahrain.

The US stations its Fifth Fleet at a naval base in the capital, Manama.

Construction has also begun on a controversial new UK naval base in the country, the UK first's naval base in the region since it ended its colonial dominance of the region in the 1970s.

UK parliamentarian Alan Duncan praised the Bahraini government and appeared to defend its human rights record during a visit to Manama on Monday.

“Amazing progress has been made by the Bahraini government since the troubles of 2011. Those who criticise Bahrain perhaps need to be more informed before speaking about the country,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency.

“The greatest misconception about Bahrain is the concept of a 'second-class Shia citizen'. This is nothing but a false perception. From what we have seen, Bahrain is a strong example of different ethnicities living in harmony and tolerance.”

Last year 56 UK parliamentarians, including now opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, signed a motion describing the construction of the new base as "deeply upsetting" in the wake of arrests and human rights abuses in the country.