DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain suspended the country's largest Shiite opposition group in a surprise court hearing Tuesday, intensifying its crackdown on dissent five years after Arab Spring protests rocked the island kingdom.
The Al-Wefaq opposition group has been suspended before amid turmoil over the protests and lingering unrest. The small Shiite-majority island off the coast of Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, which has imprisoned several activists and deported others.
A statement from the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry carried on the state-run Bahrain News Agency accused Al-Wefaq of creating "a new generation that carries the spirit of hatred," and of having links with "sectarian and extremist political parties that adopt terrorism." It said a court in Manama ordered the party suspended and its funds frozen.
Abdulla al-Shamlawi, the lawyer who represented Al-Wefaq in court, denied all the allegations.
He said he was served the court papers only Tuesday morning for the hearing and had to argue to be allowed to offer any sort of rebuttal. He said the complaint alleged Al-Wefaq had damaged Bahrain's national security since its inception in 2001 and also included allegations about it causing unrest during the 2011 protests.
"It was out of the blue," al-Shamlawi told The Associated Press. "They say Al-Wefaq is the sole danger to national security."
He said the court set an Oct. 6 hearing to decide whether to "liquidate" the party — meaning the island's biggest opposition group could be entirely dismantled.
He said Al-Wefaq "presumably" would appeal the court's ruling, though the order suspending the party would stand unless an appeals court acts to lift it.
By late Tuesday afternoon, police had surrounded Al-Wefaq's headquarters and took down its banners and posters while carrying away material inside, witnesses said.
In May, a Bahraini appeals court more than doubled a prison sentence for Al-Wefaq's secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman. Salman now faces nine years behind bars, up from an earlier four, following his conviction last year on charges that included incitement and insulting the Interior Ministry.
Prosecutors meanwhile announced Tuesday that they'd launched investigations into three Shiite Islamist organizations and seized their assets on money-laundering allegations.
The sudden court case and investigations came a day after authorities detained Nabeel Rajab, a prominent activist and the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Rajab, whom King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa previously pardoned over health concerns, faces a charge of spreading "false news," lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi said on Twitter. Al-Jishi did not respond to requests for comment.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was "deeply troubled" by the decision to suspend Al-Wefaq and urged Bahrain to reconsider. He also expressed concern over Rajab's detention and the extended sentence for Salman.
"Collectively, these actions divert Bahrain from dialogue necessary to ensure its security and stability," Kirby said in a statement.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "concerned about the re-arrest" of Rajab, his spokesman said. Ban "reiterates the right of people to the peaceful exercise of their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association in Bahrain and everywhere," Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Zainab al-Khawaja, another prominent activist, fled to Denmark earlier this month after being released from prison, fearing she would be detained again.
The 2011 demonstrations called for greater political freedoms on the island, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The government crushed the protests with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Since then, the island has seen low-level unrest, protests and attacks on police. Other prominent opposition figures and human rights activists remain imprisoned. Some have been stripped of their citizenship and deported.
In a speech Monday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said at least 250 people lost their citizenship in Bahrain in recent years "because of their alleged disloyalty to the interests of the kingdom."
Rights groups say Bahrain refused to allow activists to leave the country to attend the Geneva conference where al-Hussein spoke. The raids appear to have been timed to serve as a snub of the U.N. meeting.
Tuesday's court decision shows Bahrain "is bulldozing its civil society," said Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
"Bahrain is only reforming itself into a state of silence and terror," al-Wadaei said in a statement.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jon-gambrell .