Shiite defendants accused of planning to oust regime, which denies that trial is political

By Frederik Richter, ReutersApril 6, 2009 4:02 PM

Tires burn in front of a local mall in Budaiya, some five kilometres from the capital Manama on Thursday,, after protesters closed the streets to demand for the government to release members of opposition who have been detained. Photograph by: Hamad I Mohammed, ReutersMANAMA - A trial of 35 Shiite Muslims that has fuelled weeks of violent protests in Bahrain, the island kingdom that is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is an effort to silence government critics, the defendants' lawyer said.

Hassan Mushaima, leader of the Shiite opposition movement Haq, and some of the other defendants are accused of planning to overthrow the government by violent means, amongst other charges, said Jalila Sayed, one of the defendants' lawyers.

"It's his right of expression which is meant to be stopped, because of the ideas and the beliefs he has, that's the trial, nothing but that," Sayed told Reuters.

Nighttime battles between police with teargas and youths with bottles and burning barricades contrast with efforts by Gulf Arab state Bahrain, a U.S. ally and regional banking hub, to present itself as a stable place for international investors.

Dissent began to stir in December after officials arrested a group of protesters, saying they planned violent acts ahead of Bahrain's national celebration on Dec. 16 and Dec. 17.

Bahrain, an island country of 500,000 nationals, has a history of political tension between its Sunni-Muslim al-Khalifa rulers and its Shiite Muslim majority.

Periodic unrest has erupted with the Shiite opposition attributing them to immediate grievances such as marginalization in jobs and services, a charge government officials deny.

Abdulaziz Mubarak Al-Khalifa, undersecretary of Bahrain's Foreign Ministry, said claims the trial is of political nature were untrue.

"Potentially very serious terrorist attacks were uncovered and prevented in December, and the government has a duty to investigate and prosecute individuals against whom there is evidence," he said in a written statement to Reuters.

Mushaima, previously a member of the main Shi'te opposition party Al-Wefaq, was arrested in January, along with the head of Haq's human rights section, Abduljalil al-Singace, and a prominent Shiite cleric.

"Our case is part of a series of measures to stifle all forms of freedom of expression," Singace told Reuters.

He said the case involving Mushaima, the cleric and himself was tied to the earlier arrests in December to hide the political nature of the trial to the outside world.

"It is shown to the world as a campaign against terrorists or the use of violent means," Singace said. "This way others will say what you're doing is OK."

New-York based rights group Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement the trial was based on coerced testimonies and violated the defendants' right to fair trial.

Al-Khalifa denied these claims.

"Procedures are in place to prevent abuses or coercion of those in custody, and all testimonies and evidence are fully investigated during the trial, including being subject to challenge from defence lawyers," he said.

Bahrain's king recently pardoned jailed opposition activist Maitham Bader al-Sheikh 15 months into his five-year sentence because of his ill health.

Unlike most other Gulf Arab states, Bahrain has a lively parliament, consisting of an elected lower house and an upper house for which delegates are appointed by the King. Bahrain in particular serves as a banking and logistics hub to the Arab world's largest economy Saudi Arabia, to which it is connected via a causeway and which has a minority Shiite population in its Eastern province.

The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet patrols the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow stretch of water between Oman and Iran, through which around 40 per cent of globally traded oil leaves the world's largest oil exporting region. The trial is scheduled to resume on April 28.

Four years of Shiite-led violent protests gripped Bahrain in 1995 to demand reforms by the government. The disturbances abated in 1998 after King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa launched landmark political and economic reforms, including pardoning all political prisoners as well as activists in exiles.

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