Friday, December 10, 2010
DUBAI: Lawyers in Bahrain for 25 activists accused of plotting against the Gulf nation’s rulers staged a mass resignation Thursday to protest alleged torture by authorities in the strategic US ally.
The walkout – which brought the trial to a halt – was the latest tactic to draw attention to prisoner abuse claims and force a deeper look into a major crackdown on dissidents in the tiny island kingdom that hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Authorities accuse the activists of supporting “terrorist” cells seeking to overthrow the Sunni Muslim dynasty that rules over a Shiite majority in Bahrain, a nation no bigger in area than New York City.
The arrests were part of a sweeping offensive launched last summer against perceived threats to the state. The detentions touched off Shiite-led riots and rallies that have severely strained Sunni-Shiite relations in the country.
Washington and allies worry that the widening rifts could roll back a decade of political reforms and open footholds for Iran – the region’s Shiite power – to build stronger ties with Bahrain’s Shiites, who have complained for decades of discrimination and being frozen out of top security and political posts.
One of the defense attorneys, Jalila al-Sayed, said the 25-member legal team walked out after failing to get a probe into alleged jailhouse beatings and other abuses against the suspects, who include human-rights activists and bloggers.
It forces Bahraini authorities to appoint a new defense team, which could complicate efforts to resume the two-month-old proceedings that have been attended by diplomats from the United States and Europe. The next hearing was scheduled for December 23.
“We withdrew because the court disregards our requests to investigate the torture claims,” said Sayed. “We now consider this trial to be unfair and against international standards and we won’t be part of it.” Bahraini leaders have previously denied any abuses of the detainees and point to the country’s parliamentary elections – a rarity in the tightly ruled Gulf – as evidence of openness and tolerance.
In October’s national vote, Shiites held onto their 18 seats in the 40-member chamber, but did not gain enough outside allies for a majority bloc.