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Defiant Bahrain speeds up moves against main opposition bloc

Bahrain's Justice Ministry has accused Shia opposition bloc Al-Wefaq of promoting 'terrorism, radicalisation and violence'
Bahraini demonstrators attend a protest against the revocation of the citizenship of top Bahraini Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim (AFP)

Bahrain began court proceedings to dissolve the main Shia opposition bloc al-Wefaq on Thursday, bringing these forward from October in defiance of UN and US appeals that they be dropped.

The administrative court had not been due to meet on the government's request to dissolve it until October 6, but brought the session forward at the request of Justice Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa, a judicial source said. 

It has now set its next meeting for September 4.

The bloc was the largest in parliament before its lawmakers resigned in protest at the crushing of 2011 protests calling for an elected government, and Washington has described the government’s subsequent efforts to close al-Wefaq as "alarming".

The court already suspended all of al-Wefaq's activities on June 14, ordering its offices closed and assets frozen.

The justice ministry said the bloc provided a haven for "terrorism, radicalisation and violence" and opened the way for "foreign interference" in the kingdom's affairs.

That was an allusion to Shia Iran, which Sunni-ruled Bahrain accuses of fomenting unrest among its Shia majority.

Despite repeated appeals from its US ally for "reform and reconciliation," Bahrain has carried out an intensifying crackdown on leading Shia figures in recent weeks.

On Monday, it stripped the kingdom's top Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim of his nationality, prompting street protests in his home village of Duraz, west of Manama.

Last month, an appeals court more than doubled a four-year prison sentence handed down against al-Wefaq leader Ali Salman on charges of inciting violence.

On Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed his concern at the developments in Bahrain.

"We are very concerned at this intensified crackdown on the freedoms of expression and association and the right to a nationality," said Ravina Shamdasani, during a press briefing.

"We urge the Bahraini authorities to seek to de-escalate the situation – instead of taking such damaging steps in quick succession with a serious risk of escalating the situation."

Tiny but strategic Bahrain lies just across the Gulf from Iran and is the home base of the US Fifth Fleet.

It has been wracked by persistent unrest ever since the 2011 protests.