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BAHRAIN: King announces early end to emergency rule as opposition stands trial

May 9, 2011 |  6:09 am


Bahrain's king announced plans Sunday to lift the Persian Gulf state's emergency rule on June 1, two weeks earlier than the official end of the three-month rule, imposed March 15 in an attempt to halt anti-government unrest.

The announcement by King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa appeared timed to distract a world audience from the trial of activists accused of attempting to overthrow the monarchy amid protests by the country's majority Shiite population.

At least 30 people have been killed since protests began in February in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

In a speech last month, the country's crown prince defended the government crackdown.

"We were immensely concerned that some of our youth were pushed toward a destructive path and that the nation was drawn along with them," Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa said, according to an official transcript.

"We took necessary action to preserve lives and the livelihood and interests of all the people, based on our commitment to Islamic and Arab values," he said.

King Hamed's declaration that he would suspend martial law early gave no details of what would take its place, including whether the nighttime curfew would end or the numerous checkpoints be dismantled, according to the Associated Press.

Last month, Bahrain's foreign minister said Saudi-led reinforcements would remain as long as officials believed Iran remained a threat. That may include the perceived threat of Iran's influence through opposition leaders and activists who went on trial Sunday at a special security court set up under the emergency rule, which gives the military sweeping powers.

The 21 suspects stand accused of attempting to overthrow the 200-year-old Sunni regime and belonging to “a terrorist organization abroad working for a foreign country,” according to the Associated Press.

Bahrain's leaders have claimed that Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, has been fomenting the anti-government protests.

The suspects in custody entered not-guilty pleas, and Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told the Associated Press that the closed-door trials violated international law.

Late last month, the court sentenced four protesters to death for killing two policemen during the protests. Three other activists were convicted as accomplices and received life sentences.

Among those charged on Sunday was Hassan Mushaima, the leader of Al Haq opposition movement, and some of its senior members, including Abdul Jalil Singace.

Also among those charged was Abdulhadi Khawaja, a leading human-rights activist; Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni reform leader, and Ali Abdul Emam, a blogger and founder of a popular discussion forum Bahrain-On-Line.

The regime also appears to be using the court system to quash dissent from professionals and the press.

Some of the medical staff who treated protesters were arrested and will be tried in the same security court as oppisition leaders, according to the Associated Press.

Three former editors of Bahrain's main opposition newspaper, Al Wasat, are scheduled to stand trial in a Bahraini criminal court later this month after authorities accused them of unethical coverage of the protests. Al Wasat was expected to close Sunday, but the board decided to continue publishing despite a significant drop in circulation and revenue since the editors were forced to resign in April, the Associated Press reported.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo

Photo: A car passes a pro-government billboard Sunday in Muharraq, Bahrain, featuring pictures of jailed Bahraini Shiite and Sunni opposition leaders. From left, Abdel Jalil Singace, Ibrahim Sharif, Mohamed Muqdad, Abdel Wahab Hussein and Hassan Meshaima. A question mark appears above a blurred picture of a Shiite cleric that reads, "And others." The sign says, "Disease must be excised from the body of the nation," and, at the bottom, "We won't keep quiet after today about any mistakes or excesses by those who abuse Bahrain and its people." Credit: Hasan Jamali / Associated Press