Bahrain opposition leaders plead not guilty to terror charges
DUBAI - Bahraini opposition leaders pleaded not guilty in court on Thursday to charges of belonging to a terrorist group and attempting to overthrow the monarchy, state news agency BNA reported.
Fourteen out of a group of 21 defendants appeared before a special court set up in the wake of a mid-March crackdown on Shiite-led protests demanding political reforms in the kingdom ruled by a Sunni royal family.
The other defendants who are abroad are being tried in absentia.
"They all answered not guilty" to all charges, except for Abduljalil al-Muqdad, who "admitted taking part in unauthorised demonstrations," BNA reported.
Amnesty International said the opposition figures faced an "unfair trial" and demanded that international observers be allowed at the next hearing on Monday.
Bahrain should release the defendants "immediately and unconditionally if they are held solely because of the criticism of the authorities," the London-based rights group said in a statement.
Amnesty also demanded an independent investigation into alleged torture or other ill-treatment.
Among those on trial is also Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular group Waed, who played a prominent role in the month-long protests.
Hassan Mashaima, head of the Shiite opposition Haq movement, and Abdulwahab Hussein, who leads the Shiite Wafa Islamic Movement, as well as Shiite rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, are included in the group.
The accused are charged with "forming and directing a terrorist group aimed at overthrowing and changing the constitution of the state and the monarchy system," according to the chargesheet.
They are also accused of "having contact with a terrorist group abroad that operates in the interest of a foreign country by conducting hostile acts against the kingdom of Bahrain," in reference to Shiite Iran.
The charges also include "raising funds for the terrorist group."
Sharif and several leading opposition figures were arrested in a crackdown on the protest movement.
Nine of the defendants had been in custody on similar charges in the past before being set free under a royal pardon in February aimed at calming protests in the kingdom.
Mashaima, who was abroad, returned to Bahrain following the pardon.
Bahraini authorities say 24 people including four policemen were killed in the unrest, and they turned over 405 detainees to military courts and have released 312 others.
A special court has already sentenced four Shiites to death and three others to life in jail after convicting them of killing two policemen who were allegedly run over by cars.
Another was sentenced to seven years in prison for the attempted murder of policemen during the protests.
The court on Thursday jailed Hamad Yusof Kazim for 15 years in another case of attempted murder after convicting him for the "amputation of three fingers of a policeman and injuries sustained by other policemen," BNA said.
Bahrain has come under strong criticism from international rights organisations for its heavy-handed crackdown on the Gulf state's majority Shiites, including medical staff.
The military public prosecutor has on "humanitarian" grounds released on bail 24 doctors and nurses who worked at Manama's Salmaniya hospital "until the date of their trial," BNA said.
The medical complex which was stormed by security forces after they drove protesters out of the nearby Pearl Square on March 16.