Bahrain’s king ordered an end to the emergency rule imposed in mid-March to quell a wave of anti-government protests as leading opposition figures went on trial Sunday for plotting against the Gulf state’s monarchy.
Bahrain state TV said the state of emergency will end June 1 in line with a royal decree. The lifting of the martial laws - two weeks before the three-month emergency rule’s official expiry - seemed to reflect the rulers’ determination to again showcase the kingdom as stable and able to host international events like the Formula One race.
Since martial law was imposed March 15, authorities have been aggressively pursuing Shiite opposition supporters who staged weeks of street marches earlier this year, demanding greater freedoms, equal rights and an elected government in the strategic island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Hundreds of protesters, activists, political leaders and Shiite professionals such as doctors and lawyers have been detained.
Late last month, the security court sentenced four protesters to death for killing two policemen in the unrest. Three other opposition supporters were convicted as accomplices in the murders and were sentenced to life in prison.
The 21 opposition leaders and political activists who went on trial Sunday in a special security court set up under the emergency rule face charges of attempting to overthrow the Sunni monarchy.
Fourteen members of the group are in custody. The others were charged in absentia. During Sunday’s closed-door court proceedings, the 21 defendants pleaded not guilty. Another hearing was set for Thursday.
The allegations include seeking to topple the 200-year-old Sunni monarchy and having links to “a terrorist organisation abroad working for a foreign country.” No additional details were made public, but Bahrain’s leaders have claimed that Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah is involved in Bahrain’s protests.
Bahrain also is locked in a deepening quarrel with Iran, which has sharply criticised the wave of arrests and the dispatch of a 1,500-strong Saudi-led force in March to prop up the monarchy.
At least 30 people have been killed since members of Bahrain’s Shiite majority took their grievances to the streets in February. The protests were inspired by revolts against autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
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-Singace.
Mushaima and al-Singace were among the first political leaders taken into custody after emergency rule was imposed. The two men were among 25 Shiite 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 kingdom, and Mushaima - who was tried in absentia - returned from a self-imposed exile in London to support the uprising.
Shiites have long been demanding a greater political voice and rights, equal to those of the Sunni members of the tiny Gulf nation. Shiites 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, was among those charged Sunday. He 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.
Also charged on Sunday were Ibrahim Sharif, a prominent Sunni leader in the Shiite-led opposition, and Ali Abdul Emam, a blogger and founder of a popular discussion forum known as Bahrain-On-Line.
Last week authorities charged 23 doctors and 24 nurses with participating in illegal rallies or attempts to topple the ruling Al Khalifa family.
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.
The political turmoil has forced Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, to postpone the Bahrain Grand Prix. The season-opening F1 race - the kingdom’s premier international event - was scheduled for March 13.
Last week, Formula One’s governing body gave Bahrain until June 3 to decide if a new date could be set for this year.