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Bahraini minister targets opposition clerics over critical sermons

(BCHR/IFEX) - 17 October 2012 - The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) is deeply concerned over the authorities' persistent imposition of further restrictions on freedom of expression, and their misuse of judicial procedures as a political tool to silence and terrorize opponents who exercise their free speech rights in religious sermons and seminars, and on social networks and the Internet.

This concern arose after Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa made statements in which he threatened to use coercive force to stop clerics whose speeches are not consistent with the authorities' views. He also declared a new approach to enact legislation regarding the use of social networks and modern mobile technologies.

In a meeting with journalists on 8 October 2012, Al-Khalifa said, in a warning tone, "With the crisis unfolding, we started to find that verbal offences took place between the sects, and the religious podium lost its respect. Four months ago we started to follow the cleric's Friday sermons more closely, and a committee was formed to gather them. We advised some clerics, gave warnings to others and issued a suspension order to one. Soon, we will start using coercive force to suspend anyone who does not abide by those decisions."

The minister's statements were punctuated with hints regarding the targeting of certain opposition and religious figures that have criticized the government's performance and supported the freedom and democracy movement. The minister selectively quoted some of the terms used in their speeches. His threats ran parallel to the terrorism and defamation campaigns these individuals have been subjected to by the local, pro-government newspaper.

The statements and threats came as part of a series of continuous actions against clerics who have expressed their opinions. The minister issued a decision on 12 August to suspend cleric Sayed Kamel Al-Hashimi, who is considered an opponent of the government, in the Barbar area's Ali bin Hammad Mosque, for criticizing the judiciary and describing it as unfair and politicized. The minister considered this "an insult to the Judicial Authority and an act of disrespect towards the judiciary."

While the authorities target clerics who express opinions that do not align with their official viewpoint, they also overlook the obvious transgressions of loyal, pro-government figures. For months, some of these individuals have been attacking significant sectors of Bahraini society by publicly cursing and insulting them, accusing them of treason and stirring people against them, such as at this Friday sermon given by Sheikh Jassim Al-Saeedi.

The Ministry of Justice has not taken any actual measures against Al-Saeedi despite the inclusion of slander, contempt and sectarian incitement in his speeches. In March, after a sermon in which he described the Shiite sect as "bastards", the Ministry's only reaction was to issue a news release claiming a demand was made to open an investigation into the incident, while in reality no measures were taken to follow-up on that statement.

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