Bahrain court orders dissolution of opposition group, Al-Wefaq
MANAMA - A court on Sunday ordered the dissolution of Bahrain's Shiite main opposition group Al-Wefaq, a judicial source said, despite international criticism of the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom's intensified crackdown on dissent.
The administrative court in Manama also ordered the funds of the group, accused by authorities of "harbouring terrorism" among other charges, to be seized by the government, the source said.
The ruling can still be appealed.
Al-Wefaq was the largest group in parliament before its lawmakers resigned in protest at the crushing of protests in 2011 calling for an elected government.
The court accused Al-Wefaq, which draws most of its support from Bahrain's Shiite majority, of "inciting violence and encouraging demonstrations and sit-ins which could lead to sectarian strife in the country".
It said the bloc had "criticised the performance of the state authorities -- executive, judicial, and legislative".
On June 28, Al-Wefaq's defence lawyers withdrew from court proceedings in protest at the government's push to accelerate the process, which had initially been set for October 6.
The court had already suspended all of Al-Wefaq's activities on June 14, ordering its offices closed and assets frozen.
In October 2014, the administrative court banned Al-Wefaq for three months for violating the law on associations.
Political parties are banned in Bahrain, as in other Gulf Arab monarchies, so Al-Wefaq has the status of an association.
The justice ministry, which had requested that Al-Wefaq be dissolved, accuses the bloc of providing a haven for "terrorism, radicalisation and violence" and opening the way for "foreign interference" in the kingdom's affairs.
That is an allusion to Iran which Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, accuses of fomenting unrest among its Shiite majority.
Al-Wefaq, also known as the Islamic National Accord Association, is heir to the Bahrain Freedom Movement which played a key role in Shiite-led anti-government protests in the 1990s that sought the restoration of the elected parliament scrapped in 1975.
Sunday's ruling comes despite appeals by the United Nations, United States and rights groups for the legal action against the bloc to be dropped.
Washington has labelled the crackdown on Al-Wefaq as "alarming" and repeatedly appealed for "reform and reconciliation" in Bahrain.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had also expressed concern about the move against Al-Wefaq.
In recent months, Manama has intensified its crackdown on leading Shiite figures.
Al-Wefaq's chief, Shiite cleric Ali Salman, is serving a nine-year jail term for inciting violence after a court in May more than doubled his sentence.
His arrest in December 2014 sparked protests in Bahrain, already rocked by the Shiite-led uprising that erupted in February 2011.
Authorities have also stripped at least 261 people of their citizenship since 2012, according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, including the country's Shiite spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassem.
And on Tuesday, a court denied bail for prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab as he went on trial on charges of insulting a state institution and neighbouring Saudi Arabia online.
Amnesty International had urged Bahraini authorities to halt its "intensified crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association and movement".
The London-based rights watchdog said it was "deeply concerned" by the decision to suspend Al-Wefaq.
US group Human Rights First last month called Al-Wefaq's suspension "part of an alarming new crackdown by the government, designed to eliminate all remaining opposition in the country".