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Trial of Bahrain opposition activists stalled

Observers see government at dead end.

January 11, 2011 4:24 by

A series of lawyer resignations have slowed a Bahraini trial of 25 Shi’ite opposition activists and threaten to keep tensions between the Sunni leadership and its Shi’ite population simmering.

The Gulf Arab island state is ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa dynasty which is central to Saudi Arabian and U.S. efforts to contain the regional influence of Shi’ite power Iran.

Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite population complains of discrimination in access to government jobs and services such as housing, a charge the government denies.

Bahrain launched a broad crackdown in August and charged 25 Shi’ite men with plotting to violently overthrow the government.

Defence lawyers quit after the trial, seen as a rallying point for Shi’ites, started in October, complaining that the court had not sufficiently investigated torture allegations.

About 20 court-appointed lawyers walked out last week, after the defendants rejected them. They argued that laws do not permit them to defend the accused without their consent.

“The government has gone too far with this case, instead of trying to contain it, it’s getting into complication after complication,” said Khalil Marzooq, a member of parliament for Bahrain’s biggest Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq.

The court threatened last week to ask the government to reprimand the court-appointed lawyers. Defendants reject the trial as political and have refrained from naming new lawyers.

Bahrain denies there is torture of detainees and the government says it will thoroughly investigate any complaints.

It said that medical examinations of 13 defendants who had complained of torture found no sign of mistreatments and that six others only had minor wounds due to hand-cuffs.

Diplomats say the trial began in unprecedented openness when the judge allowed defendants to give detailed accounts of alleged torture.

But they now say that they expect the trial to be stalled for the foreseeable future as the defendants are likely to also reject the next group of lawyers appointed by the court.

They say the government has manoeuvred itself into a dead end by fielding heavy accusations against the defendants to win international support, which makes it now difficult to go back to usual political solutions used previously.

Some of the accused, in particular leaders of the Haq movement, have been arrested in the past but were pardoned by the king during trials or before legal proceedings started.

Haq disputes the legitimacy of democratic reforms launched by Bahrain in the early 2000’s to quell widespread Shi’ite unrest of the 1990s, reforms that many see as stalled today.

“It’s been five months now (since the arrests) and the actual proceedings have not even started,” said Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. “This can’t go on for much longer without a political solution by the leadership”.

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