Lawyers for three former editors of Bahrain's main opposition newspaper told a court Sunday the journalists were tricked into publishing false news about the Sunni monarchy's crackdown on Shiite-led protesters as part of a plot to undermine a key opposition voice.
The trial of the former Al Wasat editors is part of a sweeping crackdown on the island nation's Shiite-led opposition, which has been protesting for greater rights and political freedoms in the Gulf island kingdom.
The former editors were forced to resign from Bahrain's most widely read newspaper after the government imposed emergency rule in March to quell dissent.
The charges against the three men, who pleaded not guilty last month, include publishing false news and endangering public order. If convicted on all charges, they face at least two years in prison and hefty fines.
Two employees of Al Wasat newspaper told Bahrain's highest criminal court on Sunday that the fabricated information was overlooked because of the difficult conditions facing the kingdom's only opposition paper during the anti-government demonstrations.
The stories, describing actions against protesters that never occurred, came from an Internet address in Saudi Arabia, said Al Wasat's founder and former chief editor, Mansoor al-Jamri, during a hearing last week.
Another hearing in the case is set for July 3.
At least 31 people have been killed since Bahrain's Shiite majority started its campaign for greater freedoms in February. The protests were inspired by uprisings in the Arab world.
Violence by Bahrain's authorities _ strengthened by a Saudi-led military force _ has been widespread and well documented since martial law was imposed March 15. Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders, human rights activists and Shiite professionals like doctors and lawyers have been arrested. Dozens have been tried in a special security court that had sentenced two activists to death.
The leader of powerful Saudi Arabia has backed the monarchy in Bahrain in part out of fears that Shiite power Iran could exploit Bahrain's turmoil and expand its influence on the Arab side of the Gulf.
Bahrain's monarch was to meet with Saudi King Abdullah in the Saudi city of Jeddah Sunday night to discuss the unrest and "Iranian threats," said a Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
Bahrain's emergency rule was lifted June 1, thought trials of suspected opposition supporters continue in the special security court.
The ruling dynasty has proposed opening talks with opposition delegates July 1, but the outreach has met with a cool reception from Shiite leaders demanding that authorities roll back security measures and halt trials against activists.
The most influential Shiite group in Bahrain's opposition, Al Wefaq, said it will not talk with the government as long as authorities continue their pursuit of opposition supporters and violate human rights.
"Such actions do not provide conditions for a meaningful dialogue," Al Wefaq said in a statement Sunday.