Bahrain’s king set on Sunday a fast-track timetable to end martial-law-style rule in a bid to display confidence that authorities have smothered an uprising for reforms even as rights groups denounced the hard-line measures.
The announcement to lift emergency rule two weeks early, on June 1, came just hours after the start of a closed-door trial of activists accused of plotting to overthrow the Persian Gulf state’s rulers.
The decision appears part of Bahrain’s aggressive international campaign to reassure financial markets and bring back high-profile events. They include the coveted Formula One grand prix, which was canceled in March amid deadly clashes and protests by the country’s majority Shiites, who are seeking greater rights and freedoms.
But the crackdown has come at a high price in the strategic island nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
At least 30 people have been killed since the protests began in February, inspired by revolts against autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. But tiny Bahrain also has a volatile demographic mix. Shiites account for about 70 percent of the population, but they say they face widespread discrimination and are denied top posts in the government and security forces.
Tensions have soared in the gulf region between Shiite power Iran and the Sunni Arab rulers backing Bahrain. Iran has condemned the three-month emergency rule imposed March 15 just as a 1,500-strong Saudi-led force arrived in Bahrain to support the monarchy. Gulf leaders, in turn, have warned Iran against meddling in their affairs.
Meanwhile, watchdog groups — including the top U.N. rights agency — have accused Bahraini authorities of overstepping their bounds with closed-door trials and mass detentions of hundreds of protesters, activists and others. A major U.S. labor organization, the AFL-CIO, is asking Washington to withdraw from a free-trade pact with Bahrain as punishment for pressuring Shiite-led unions.
U.S. officials have tried to straddle two objectives: criticizing Bahrain’s leaders for violence and calling for reforms, but ensuring that there are no serious cracks in one of Washington’s most important military alliances in the gulf region.
The declaration to lift the emergency rule gave no details of what would take its place, including whether the nighttime curfew would end or whether the numerous checkpoints would be dismantled. Last month, Bahrain’s foreign minister said the Saudi-led reinforcements would remain as long as threats from Iran are perceived.
The latest indication of Bahrain’s worries about Iran came Sunday when 21 opposition leaders and political activists went on trial in a special security court set up under the emergency rule, which gives the military sweeping powers.
The suspects — 14 in custody and the others charged in absentia — are accused of attempting to overthrow the 200-year-old Sunni dynasty and having links to “a terrorist organization abroad working for a foreign country.” No other details were made public, but the kingdom’s leaders have asserted that Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shiite militant group, is involved in the protests in Bahrain.
Among those charged Sunday were senior Shiite opposition leaders such as Hassan Mushaima, the leader of the anti-government Haq society, and some of its senior members, including Abduljalil al-Singace. Mushaima and Singace were among the first political leaders taken into custody after the emergency rule was imposed.