DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahraini authorities have put a prominent human rights lawyer on trial for charges that include insulting state institutions, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday, in a further crackdown on dissent.
The New York-based rights group said that Mohammed al-Tajer, who has defended opposition figures and rights activists involved in 2011 pro-democracy protests, was questioned by the public prosecutor on Nov. 10 for inciting hatred of a religious sect and misusing a telecommunications appliance.
No date has been set for a trial. Al-Tajer faces prison sentences totaling more than five years if convicted.
Bahraini officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.
Public prosecutors had cited a private WhatsApp voice message sent in early 2016 in which 50-year-old al-Tajer said that the country’s public prosecution was employing surveillance teams to intercept ”every word about Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, hatred of the regime, or insults against the king”, HRW quoted his lawyer as saying.
“Al-Tajer is facing charges because he stated the obvious: Bahraini authorities are snooping on their citizens and anyone who steps out of line online faces jail time,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
Host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is seen by other Sunni Muslim-ruled Gulf states like Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against the influence of their Shi‘ite Muslim adversary Iran.
Majority Bahraini Shi‘ites say the Sunni Muslim-dominated government discriminates against them, while authorities deny that and say opposition politicians are trying to undermine security.
Al-Tajer in July was added to a list of Bahrainis including activists, journalists and lawyers, who are banned from traveling abroad, part of a series of measures authorities have been using against opponents.
These included closing down the main Shi‘ite opposition group al-Wefaq and revoking the citizenship of top Shi‘ite Muslim cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassim.
Rights groups including Amnesty International have criticized the kingdom’s lack of an independent judiciary and accused its security forces of committing torture and other forms of ill-treatment with impunity.
Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Tom Finn and Toby Chopra