Bahrain suspends main Shia opposition group

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Wefaq supporters hold up posters of Sheikh Ali Salman at a protest in Zinj, Bahrain (29 May 2016)Image source, AFP
Image caption,
An appealed court more than doubled the prison sentence of Wefaq's leader last month

The government in Bahrain has suspended all activities by the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom's leading Shia Muslim opposition grouping.

A justice ministry statement cited by state media said the offices of the Wefaq National Islamic Society had also been closed and its assets frozen.

A lawyer for Wefaq, whose leader has been jailed for inciting unrest, said the move had came "out of the blue".

Wefaq has helped lead pro-democracy protests in the country since 2011.

That February, demonstrators took to the streets to demand greater political rights and an end to discrimination against the Shia majority.

The following month, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa brought in troops from neighbouring Sunni-led Gulf states to restore order and crush dissent. The unrest left at least 30 civilians and five policemen dead.

Opposition activists say dozens of people have been killed in ongoing clashes between protesters and security forces, while bomb attacks blamed on Iran-backed militants have left a number of police officers dead.

'Safeguard security'

The justice ministry statement published by the official Bahrain News Agency said it had filed a request with a court to suspend Wefaq to "safeguard the security of the kingdom"

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Bahrain has been wracked by unrest since a pro-democracy uprising was crushed in 2011

A lawyer for Wefaq, Abdullah al-Shamlawi, told the Associated Press news agency that he had been served court papers on Tuesday morning that alleged the grouping had damaged Bahrain's national security since its inception in 2001 and also included claims that it caused unrest during the 2011 uprising.

Within hours, the court had approved the justice ministry's request, he said.

Mr Shamlawi added the court had scheduled a hearing for 6 October to decide whether to "liquidate" Wefaq.

Wefaq is Bahrain's largest legally recognised opposition political society and says it advocates non-violent activism.

Last month, an appeal court more than doubled the prison sentence of Wefaq's secretary-general from four years to nine, overturning a trial court's decision to acquit Sheikh Salman of advocating the overthrow of the government by force.

The appeal court increased the sentence despite what Human Rights Watch said was strong evidence that his trial was unfair and the fact that two of the charges on which he was convicted violated his right to freedom of expression.

Image source, Reuters
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Activist Zainab al-Khawaja fled Bahrain last week while Nabeel Rajab was detained on Monday

The government's decision to suspend Wefaq comes a day after the family of the leading human rights activist Nabeel Rajab said he had been detained by police.

Another prominent activist, Zainab al-Khawaja, fled to Denmark last week after reportedly being threatened with being imprisoned again.

In a speech on Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, noted that at least 250 people had also lost their citizenship in Bahrain in recent years "because of their alleged disloyalty to the interests of the kingdom".

"Repression will not eliminate people's grievances, it will increase them," he said.