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Bahrain Opposition Leaders Face Second Round of Questions

  • Phillip Walter Wellman

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, second from left, visits with Sheikh Ali Salman, head of al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, left, former member of the Bahraini parliament, Abdul Jalil Khalil, second from right, and Timothy J. Pounds, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Bahrain, right, in Manama, July 6, 2014.

Two leading figures of Bahrain's opposition al-Wefaq party faced a second day of questioning on Thursday, less than a week after holding an illegal meeting with a senior U.S. diplomat in Manama.

Al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman and his assistant, Khalil al-Marzooq, say they were asked by authorities on Wednesday and Thursday to provide details of their discussions with Tom Malinowski, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The U.S. diplomat's talks with the two members of Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition party led to his expulsion from the Gulf kingdom on Tuesday. Washington said it was “deeply concerned” by the move and was considering a response.

Salman and al-Marzooq say the United States requested the meeting focused on national reconciliation efforts.

The Bahraini government says the visit was not part of Malinowski’s approved agenda and that it violated a law passed last year that requires a representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be present at all meetings between foreign delegations and political societies.

They were released on the basis that they cannot travel outside the country, indicating the authorities would like to pursue their case.

Salman al-Jalahma, media attaché at Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, says the law is partly aimed at preventing the spread of false information.

"Essentially, this is just to have a more clear and transparent communication between local entities and foreign entities that we have close ties with to ensure that we have very transparent, constructive engagement by everyone," he said. "The U.S. embassy is well versed in the stipulation from previous engagements, so it’s confusing as to why the laws of the country were willingly challenged. ... Why provoke an already very sensitive environment?"

Bahrain has witnessed continued unrest since 2011, when its majority Shi’ite population took to the streets to demand political reform and more rights from the Sunni monarchy.

The government managed to control the demonstrations with military support from its Gulf neighbors, but confidence-building measures have since achieved minimal results.

Malinowski was scheduled to meet with various political and civil society leaders while in Bahrain. However, al-Jalahma says he appeared to put most of his focus on al-Wefaq, which could have caused further division among other parties.

"This was our biggest issue — that we have worked so hard to close these rifts that have widened over the past few years and we can’t afford to have anything else hinder that progress," he said.

Malinowski, however, insists his expulsion was “about undermining dialogue” in the country.

A fourth attempt to stage successful peace talks in Bahrain has been in the works since the beginning of the year.

Speaking to VOA by telephone on Thursday after his interrogation, al-Marzooq said he agrees with Malinowski and does not believe the government is taking the talks seriously.

"They don’t want to compromise and the dialogue is for them a big compromise, to lose the control of the authority," he said.

Bahrain’s foreign ministry says the Malinowski incident "should not in any way affect the two countries’ relationship of mutual interests.”

The nation is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, responsible for all American sea power in the region.