DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A court in Bahrain ordered the country's main Shiite opposition group to be dissolved on Sunday, deepening a crackdown on dissent in the strategically important Western-allied kingdom.
The order against al-Wefaq marks one of the sharpest blows yet against civil society activists in the Sunni-ruled island nation, which was rocked by widespread protests led by its Shiite majority demanding political reforms five years ago.
Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, crushed the 2011 protests with help from its larger neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But ongoing, low-level and occasionally violent unrest continues to roil the kingdom despite reforms following the Arab Spring-inspired uprising.
The U.S. State Department swiftly condemned the decision.
"The government's recent steps to suppress nonviolent opposition only undermine Bahrain's cohesion and security, as well as the region's stability. These actions are inconsistent with U.S. interests and strain our partnership with Bahrain," said Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement. "We call on the Government of Bahrain to reverse these and other recent measures, return urgently to the path of reconciliation, and work collectively to address the aspirations of all Bahrainis."
In issuing its ruling, the High Civil Court accused al-Wefaq of multiple offenses, including objecting to the legitimacy of the country's constitution and "legislative authority," supporting violence, and expressing "solidarity with persons convicted for instigating regime hate, a coup d'état and demeaning the judiciary and executive bodies."
The ruling calls for al-Wefaq's assets to be liquidated and its funds to be transferred to the state treasury. Representatives for the group could not immediately be reached for comment.
Al-Wefaq is one of Bahrain's so-called "political societies," which are allowed under laws that technically forbid political parties. Its candidates claimed the largest share of seats in parliamentary elections in 2006 and 2010, though it fell short of securing a majority in either.
It boycotted the last elections in 2014, saying it wanted greater power-sharing, the release of political prisoners and a prime minister chosen by elected officials. The current prime minister, an uncle of the king, has held power for more than four decades.
Brian Dooley, director for human rights defenders at the Washington-based Human Rights First, blasted Sunday's decision as the "government's single most repressive act of the last five years."
"Today's decision is a dangerous mistake, leaving no real outlet for peaceful grievance left in Bahrain," he said. "The kingdom's government has told its people that from now on not only are you not allowed rights, you're not allowed to complain about it."
Authorities suspended al-Wefaq's activities and froze its funds last month, accusing the group of creating "a new generation that carries the spirit of hatred" and of having links with "sectarian and extremist political parties that adopt terrorism."
Abdullah al-Shamlawi, a lawyer who had been defending al-Wefaq, said at the time that the order came "out of the blue." He has denied all the allegations.
He and other members of the defense team pulled out of the case after the judge refused to allow them access to al-Wefaq's offices to prepare their defense.
Reached by phone Sunday, he referred to media reports of the court ruling because, as far as he understood, no one was in court to represent al-Wefaq.
An appeals court in May more than doubled a prison sentence against the group's secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman, following his conviction on charges that included incitement and insulting the Interior Ministry.
Other activists who were not already behind bars on earlier convictions have been targeted in recent weeks.
Prominent human rights advocate Nabeel Rajab was detained last month on a charge of spreading "false news," and has since received medical treatment for an irregular heartbeat.
Activist Zainab al-Khawaja fled to Denmark after being released from prison on humanitarian grounds. Her activist father remains imprisoned on a life sentence for his role in the 2011 protests.
Authorities last month stripped the citizenship of the country's leading Shiite cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, prompting protests by his supporters. Officials accuse him of creating a sectarian atmosphere and of forming groups that "follow foreign religious ideologies and political entities."
That charge was an apparent reference to Shiite powerhouse Iran, which Bahrain and its Gulf allies see as a destabilizing rival stoking unrest in the kingdom.
Iran denies interfering in Bahraini affairs.
Its Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, warned that shutting down al-Wefaq risks provoking further violence.
"Such actions like (the) dissolution of moderate associations and stripping nationality from respectful religious and political leaders of Bahrain will only complicate the situation and is not at the interest of the country's rulers," he said in comments carried by Iran's official IRNA news agency.
The situation in Bahrain is raising alarm in Washington.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators earlier this month wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to express concern about the Bahraini government's targeting of peaceful political opponents and civil society activists, saying the situation could destabilize the U.S. ally, spark violence and encourage meddling by Iran.
A State Department report sent to Congress days earlier found that Bahrain had fallen short in implementing political and human rights reforms recommended by an independent commission in the wake of the 2011 unrest.
Associate Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.
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