Bahrain said yesterday it would dissolve the country’s main Shi’ite Muslim opposition group, in its toughest crackdown yet on Shi’ite dissidents who led an uprising to demand more say in the Sunni-ruled monarchy.
The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs said in a statement it would seek a court approval to disband Wefaq, which won 18 seats in the 40-seat parliament in last year’s election.
The government move followed the arrest of more than 300 Shi’ite activists and the mass sacking of Shi’ite workers from state companies for taking part in protests demanding more freedom, an end to discrimination and a constitutional monarchy.
The government led by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa royal family has also clamped down on bloggers and sacked senior editors from Bahrain’s only independent newspaper.
The ministry’s statement said it had taken the action against Wefaq and a second, smaller opposition group because they had tried to bring down Bahrain’s constitutional order and taken instructions from religious leaders.
“Both societies were clearly directed by senior religious clerics who operated outside the membership and official legal decision-making structure for the societies,” it said.
Last month Bahrain’s Sunni rulers crushed weeks of protests led mainly by Shi’ites, deploying security forces throughout the capital and calling in troops from Sunni-led Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Gulf Arab rulers accused non-Arab Shi’ite Iran of interfering in Bahrain, where Shi’ites form at least 60 percent of Bahrain’s 600,000 natives.
The Shi’ite uprising unnerved neighbouring Sunni countries, particularly oil giant Saudi Arabia which feared that protests could spread further and embolden its own disgruntled Shi’ites in the Eastern Province, home to most of the country’s oil.
Saudi Arabia, linked to Bahrain by a causeway, is seen as the political and financial guardian of the island state which is also the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Asked about Bahrain’s move to disband Wefaq, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters: “We are concerned by it. We would welcome them reversing this particular action.”
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa was in Riyadh Wednesday for talks with Saudi Crown Prince Sultan. He was among the first royals at Riyadh airport to welcome back King Abdullah after his treatment abroad for illness in February, when analysts say Gulf pressure on Manama was strong to end the protest movement.
The government had not previously targeted Wefaq, which has called for a constitutional monarchy but did not join other smaller groups who demanded the overthrow of the al-Khalifa ruling family during the protests.
Wefaq mobilised more than 100,000 protesters during peaceful marches when the government still allowed gatherings.
Although it won nearly half the seats in parliament, it complained of gerrymandered electoral districts to prevent Shi’ite candidates demanding reform from taking a majority.
Wefaq resigned its seats in parliament in protest at the government crackdown. By-elections are expected in May to replace them.
“They’re going through a cycle of repression and apparent reform, without solving any problems,” Jane Kinninmont, analyst at British-based think-tank Chatham House, said of the government move on Wefaq.
“It’s possible that this is to prevent Wefaq being re-elected to parliament. Of course we don’t know if they would even run again under these circumstances.”
Parliament has little power and the cabinet, appointed by the king, has been headed by the same member of the ruling family for four decades.
Shi’ite deputies denounced the government move which they said did not distinguish between mainstream and hardline Shi’ites.
“It’s reached a stage where they say there are no more moderates, that the entire opposition consists of extremists. This is the wrong message,” said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a former Wefaq member of parliament.
“The hardliners (in government) never wanted Wefaq to take part in elections and get seats in parliament,” he said.
Wefaq said in a statement it had always complied with Bahraini laws and regulations and that it was still committed to a political solution to Bahrain’s political crisis.
The government said in its statement the legal action was directed against Wefaq as a legal entity and not its members who it said can create a new society should Wefaq be dissolved.
It said courts would make their ruling within a month and the group would be dissolved with immediate effect if courts upheld the government action.
The severity of the crackdown stunned Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, who say they have no loyalty to Iran, and sparked criticism from Iran and Shi’ite groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.