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Bahrain: UK royal trip ends, fears of overlooked crackdown

Associated Press Associated Press 11/11/2016 By JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press
Britain's Prince Charles salutes during a remembrance ceremony in Manama, Bahrain, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. A leader in Bahrain's secular opposition told The Associated Press on Friday he fears a royal visit by Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla could "whitewash" an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the tiny island nation. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell) © The Associated Press Britain's Prince Charles salutes during a remembrance ceremony in Manama, Bahrain, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. A leader in Bahrain's secular opposition told The Associated Press on Friday he fears a royal visit by Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla could "whitewash" an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the tiny island nation. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

MANAMA, Bahrain — As a commemoration for British dead from World War I attended by Britain's Prince Charles reached its end, the call to Friday prayer in Bahrain from nearby Shiite mosques began.

For a carefully scripted royal visit, it marked the first time Shiites not allied with Bahrain's Sunni rulers reached the Prince of Wales' ears.

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla's three-nation tour of the Gulf ended Friday in Bahrain, with the two waving goodbye from the door of their airplane. They left behind a Shiite-majority country in the grips of a crackdown on dissent, the like of which unseen since its 2011 Arab Spring protests. 

"I don't see what's gone on behind closed doors or whether the prince raised any questions of human rights," said Ebrahim Sharif, a leader in the secular Waad Party. "Bahrain's government values its relations with the U.K. and if the U.K. puts its weight behind the improvement of human rights in Bahrain, the government will listen. They need friends."

It's not clear what Prince Charles told Bahrain's king, whom he briefly met, nor the crown prince, who attended many of his events smiling brightly for the gathered cameras of the British press. Bahrain's monarchy has a long love of the British royal family.

The British Foreign Office, while saying it holds "frank" discussions with Bahrain, declined to discuss the prince's own comments. On Friday, the prince's Clarence House issued a statement saying "their royal highnesses are aware of the points raised by human rights organizations and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are providing background briefings and information."

That wasn't much information for Sharif, who at times has been imprisoned in the tiny island nation. He told The Associated Press that he worried the prince's visit could "whitewash" the human rights situation in the small country off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Bahrain put down its Arab Spring protests with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The protests were backed by the Shiite majority and others, and were aimed at demanding more political freedoms from the ruling Al Khalifa family.

While low-level unrest persisted for years, things remained largely peaceful until April, when Bahrain's military announced it was "ready to deal firmly and with determination with these sedition groups and their heads" after a gasoline bomb killed a police officer.

Since then, authorities suspended the country's largest Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, and doubled a prison sentence for its secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman. Famed activist Nabeel Rajab was imprisoned and now awaits sentencing on a charge of spreading "false news." Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of well-known activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who himself is serving a life sentence over his role in the 2011 protests, was forced into exile.

Meanwhile, the country's security forces have besieged a small town home to a Shiite cleric who had his citizenship stripped by the government earlier this year.

For Prince Charles' visit with Camilla, the two were kept far away from the siege of Diraz, though the occasional anti-government graffiti could be seen out of the windows of their speeding motorcade. On Friday, as the call to prayer sounded near the British Embassy that hosted the commemoration ceremony, Diraz itself could not hold prayers.

Leaving the embassy, Charles' convoy caught a brief glimpse of Shiite banners as well. But from there, it was off to government-sponsored improvement programs and a housing project.

For Sharif, the government should work with an opposition that is "flexible" and "realistic." However, he warned greater problems awaited heavily leveraged Bahrain as global oil prices remain low.

"All parties should compromise," he said. "We can't have absolute power in the hands of the ruling family."

Asked if he worried about being imprisoned again over his comments, he laughed.

"I am addicted to prison now," he said.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap .

His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jon-gambrell .

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