Bahrain human rights activist Nabeel Rajab flashes a victory sign as he poses for photographers with his family members
Bahrain human rights activist Nabeel Rajab (C) is the face of the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain (Reuters)

Bahraini opposition leader and resigned MP Ali Alaswad has told IB Times UK that only political reforms and an elected and accountable government can force the country's regime to respect basic human rights principles such as the right to protest peacefully.

In an exclusive interview, the al-Wefaq party leader, who fled his country after his home was targeted by security forces, said that "first, there should be political reform" leading to democratic elections.

He added: "If there's an elected and accountable government, the Prime Minister, for instance, can be questioned in the parliament. This is not possible now."

Alaswad, who was elected to Bahrain's parliament in October 2010 but resigned four months later in response to the government's crackdown on pro-democracy protests, said that dialogue with the current Prime Minister Khalifah ibn Sulman Al Khalifah is not possible as his government has "lost legitimacy with the people in Bahrain."

"Most people reject him," he said. "The PM is not elected: he was appointed after Bahrain gained independence."

Khalifa bin Salman, uncle of the reigning King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa, is the longest-serving prime minister in the world, having been nominated in 1971.

Danish sanctions?

Alaswad also welcomed Denmark's proposal to begin discussions regarding sanctions against Bahrain in the international community.

"We need to think about what kind of sanctions we can take against Bahrain," the foreign policy spokesperson of the prime minister's party, Socialdemokraterne Jeppe Kofod, said.

All eight parties in Denmark sent a letter to the Bahraini King asking for the release of human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja after a court upheld his life sentence, along with those handed to 13 of the country's most prominent political and human rights activists.

Earlier this year al-Khawaja, 51, went on a 110 day-long hunger strike in protest against his conviction. Denmark has asked for him to be released on the grounds that he has Danish citizenship, but the Supreme Judicial Council rejected the request.

"Why did the international community pushed for sanctions for Syria but won't for the Bahrain regime?" asked Alaswad.

"The UN Security Council should report Bahrain to the International Criminal Court. We already sent a letter asking for Bahrain to sign the Rome convention."

The Danish letter also called on the release of Zainab al-Khawaja, daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and a fellow activist, who was arrested early this August for staging a lone protest in the village of Diraz, in the north-west of the country.

Sectarian tensions

Bahrain's tiny island kingdom lies off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf and has a story of relatively small uprisings. One of the main problems remains the country's division along sectarian lines.

With a Sunni monarchy, relying on a largely Sunni power base, the majority Shia population has for years been disfranchised and left on the margin of the country's political life.

The government has mainly depicted the protests as Shia-led and based on sectarian demands. But no single evidence of Shias targeting Sunnis in the country has been found, according to Alaswad.

"All lies from government about Shias trying to occupy hospitals or kill Sunnis have been exposed. They want to introduce separation among the people, but there is proof, for instance, that Shia clerics are calling for violence or encouraging people to take to the streets violently."

Ahead of last Friday's protest, called by al-Wefaq and other opposition parties in Manama for the first time since the uprising began last year, the government "went to Sunni businesses and said al-Wefaq wanted to affect them negatively," Alaswad said.

However, businesses are typically closed on Friday afternoon. Police reportedly attempted to block the demonstration using armoured vehicles to prevent demonstrators from reaching the march, and protesters were targeted by riot police with rubber bullets and tear gas, the politician said.

Calling for peaceful protests

Alaswad also replied to a common accusation by government officials that protesters were using Molotov cocktails to target security forces. "The common thing between us and pro-democracy activists is that we all call for peaceful protests," he said.

"There was a meeting at the house of Nabeel Rajab [a prominent pro-democracy activist sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement in the protests] and his son said: 'My father's message is that we have to protest peacefully'."

He said al-Wefaq bans the use of Molotov cocktails and is trying to stop its diffusion among protesters.

"Molotov cocktails have been used by youths in the villages who are trying to protect themselves because of the excess of force, such as the use of tear gas, by riot police in Manama," Alaswad said.

Many videos collected by Bahrain advocacy and monitoring group Bahrain Watch indeed show the country's police forces throwing Molotov cocktail at protesters and property.

While a Bahraini appeals court has refused to release Nabeel Rajab on bail, Alaswad admitted that his party "failed" to protect the human rights defenders in Bahrain.

"Nabeel Rajab stands for the Bahraini people, he is loved by the people and is the right defender for human rights," the politician said.

Rajab, 48, has been sentenced to three years in prison for three separate cases of inciting and participating in protests. The next hearing will be on 27 September.