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Sheik Abdul Amir Jamri, 67; Bahrain's leading Shiite cleric

December 19, 2006|From the Associated Press

MANAMA, BAHRAIN — Sheik Abdul Amir Jamri, a spiritual leader of Bahrain's Shiite opposition who was jailed after riots against the country's Sunni leadership, died Monday of heart and kidney failure. He was 67.

Shiites across the tiny Persian Gulf island state went into deep mourning, hanging black flags and banners outside their houses, and pasting pictures of Jamri on walls and car windows.

Though he was freed from prison in 1999, the government still regarded the cleric as a divisive figure, and Bahraini state radio and television ignored his death on their news bulletins.

Word of his death quickly spread, however, with many Bahrainis receiving the news in cellphone text messages.

"He was a father figure for Shiite Bahrainis," said his son, Mansour Jamri, a leading columnist and editor at the independent Alwasat newspaper. "His legacy will start today. He had great influence during his life."

A local rights group, HAQ -- the Movement of Liberties and Democracy -- described Jamri as "the spiritual father" of Bahrainis and a person "who struggled for real constitutional citizenship where people live in peace without distinction between Sunnis and Shiites."

Although his poor health had kept him out of active politics for several years, Jamri remained a spiritual mentor to the main opposition party, Wefaq, which won 17 of the parliament's 40 seats in last month's elections.

He served from 1973 to 1975 in Bahrain's first parliament, which was dissolved by the emir.

Twenty years later, he became the religious leader of the Shiites' campaign for the restoration of democracy and equal rights.

Shiites form a slight majority of Bahrain's 700,000 citizens, but the royal family is Sunni Muslim. Shiites have long complained that they suffer discrimination, particularly at the higher levels of government.

Their campaign turned violent in 1994, when arsonists set fire to buildings and protesters clashed with security forces in the streets. More than 40 people died.

In 1996, authorities detained Jamri for 3 1/2 years on charges of espionage and incitement, keeping him in solitary confinement.

In July 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. But he was pardoned the next day by the new emir, the current king, Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, who was beginning the program of political reform that led to new parliamentary elections in 2002.

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