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article imageBahrain strips citizenship of top Shiite cleric

By AFP     Jun 20, 2016 in World

Bahrain said Monday it has revoked the citizenship of the Sunni-ruled kingdom's top Shiite cleric, accusing him of sowing sectarian divisions, in a move that sparked fresh protests among the majority community.

Sheikh Isa Qassim, considered the community's spiritual leader, abused his position to "serve foreign interests and promote... sectarianism and violence", the interior ministry said, quoted by the BNA state news agency.

Qassim had been a strong proponent of "absolute allegiance to the clergy," while maintaining continuous contact with "organisations and parties that are enemies of the kingdom," it charged.

The decision follows the suspension of Bahrain's main Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, whose political chief Sheikh Ali Salman is serving a nine-year jail term on charge of inciting violence.

The latest move in an escalating crackdown on opposition triggered fresh tensions and street protests in the cleric's home village of Diraz, west of the capital Manama, witnesses said.

They said police deployed in force and sealed off the village, where demonstrators waved portraits of their religious leader and chanted slogans against King Hamad.

Home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has been shaken by unrest since security forces crushed 2011 protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.

Protesters still frequently clash with police in Shiite villages outside the capital, with rights groups repeatedly raising concern over the response of the authorities.

Qassim allegedly worked on "controlling elections" by issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, either calling for or against voter participation, the interior ministry said.

It said his interventions "stretched to aspects of public life."

The ministry suggested that Qassim was not Bahraini in origin, without specifying when he acquired citizenship, while online sources say he was born in Diraz in the 1940s.

He delivers the sermon at weekly Friday prayers in the mosque of Diraz, regularly criticising the government's crackdown on the opposition.

Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, addressing the council of ministers on Monday, warned that "there will be no place for those who incite violations of the law and who threaten the security of the country."

Bahraini authorities have revoked by court order the citizenships of scores of Shiites convicted of violence.

But unlike in earlier cases, the decision against Qassim was issued by the Gulf state's council of ministers and not by a court.

- UN chief 'dismayed' -

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern last week over Bahrain's crackdown on opposition.

He was also "dismayed" by reports that human rights activists have been intimidated and stripped of their citizenship, a UN statement said.

"The current actions against the opposition may undermine the reforms undertaken" and "lessen the prospect of an inclusive national dialogue in the interest of all people of the kingdom," he said.

Police on June 13 re-arrested a prominent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab.

On Thursday, a Bahraini court sentenced eight Shiites to 15-year jail terms and stripped them of their citizenship for forming a "terror" group.

In another trial, 13 people were jailed 15 years each for the attempted murder of policemen. Twenty-two others were jailed for three years each in the same case.

The verdicts are the latest in the series of rulings meted out against Bahrain's Shiites.

They followed a decision to close all the offices of Wefaq and freeze its funds for its alleged role as a haven of "terrorism, radicalisation, and violence" and for serving as a channel for "foreign interference" in the kingdom's affairs.

Bahrain, which is connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway and lies across the Gulf from Shiite Iran, has accused Tehran of stoking unrest among the Shiite community.

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