MANAMA: Bahrain’s military prosecutor accused 21 political activists Sunday of seeking to overthrow the ruling monarchy with the help of a foreign terrorist group — an apparent reference to Iranian-backed militants — in a widening crackdown on a pro-reform uprising by the island nation’s Shia majority.
The charges are part of fast-moving efforts by Bahrain’s authorities to prosecute opposition leaders and others after months of clashes and protests in the strategic kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Late last month, a special security court set up under martial law sentenced four people to death for killing two policemen in the unrest.
The latest cases were tried by the same court, according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency. Among those charged on Sunday are senior opposition leaders such as Hassan Mushaima, the leader of Al Haq movement, and some of its senior members including Abdul Jalil Al-Sangaece.
Mushaima and Al-Sangaece were among the first political leaders taken into custody after emergency rule was declared in March to quell weeks of anti-government protests that began Feb. 14 and were inspired by revolts against autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
The two men were among 25 Shia activists on trial last year on charges of trying to overthrow the nation’s Sunni rulers. The case was dropped in March to calm tensions in the Gulf kingdom, and Mushaima — who was tried in absentia — returned from a self-imposed exile in London to support the uprising.
Fourteen members of the group charged Sunday are in custody. The others are charged in absentia.
The allegations include seeking to topple the 200-year-old Sunni monarchy and having links to "a terrorist organization abroad working for a foreign country." No addition details were made public, but Bahrain’s leaders have claimed that the Iranian-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon has sought to make inroads in Bahrain with the protests.
Bahrain also is locked in a deepening quarrel with Iran, which has sharply criticized the waves of arrests and the dispatch of a 1,500-strong Saudi-led force in March to prop up the monarchy.
Shias have long been demanding a greater political voice and rights, equal to those of the Sunni members of the tiny Gulf nation. Shias comprise about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, but are excluded from top government and security posts.
Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, the kingdom’s leading human rights activist, is also among those charged Sunday. Al-Khawaja was beaten unconscious by police before being taken from his house in the outskirts of the capital, Manama, along with his two sons-in-law last month, according to relatives who witnessed the raid.
Al-Khawaja is the former Middle East and North Africa director of Frontline Defenders, a rights organization. He also documented human rights abuses in Bahrain for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Also charged on Sunday were Ibrahim Sharif, a prominent Sunni leader in the kingdom’s Shia-led opposition, and Ali Abdul Emam, a blogger and founder of a popular discussion forum known as Bahrain-On-Line.
More than 30 people have died in the unrest. Hundreds of protesters, activists, political leaders and Shia professionals such as doctors and lawyers have been detained since Bahrain’s king declared martial law on March 15.
Last week authorities charged 23 doctors and 24 nurses with participating in illegal rallies or attempts to topple the Al Khalifa family that has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years.
Some of the medical staff who treated protesters during the unprecedented political unrest will be tried in the same security court. Only select journalists are allowed to cover the trials after authorities put a gag order on legal proceedings against suspected opposition supporters.
Later this month, three former top editors of Bahrain’s main opposition newspaper, Al Wasat, will be tried in a criminal court after authorities accused them of unethical coverage of the protests.
Al Wasat was to shut down Sunday, but the paper’s board decided to continue publishing despite a significant drop in circulation and revenue since the three editors were forced to resign in April.