ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Bahrain pressed forward Wednesday with its campaign to crush political opposition, opening the trial of four former opposition newspaper editors on charges that could send them to prison for as long as two years.
Mansoor al Jamri, the former chief editor of Al Wasat, and two colleagues, Walid Noueihed and Aqeel Mirza, pleaded not guilty in Bahrain's High Criminal Court to allegations of "intentionally fabricating news stories with the intent to destabilize" the oil-producing Persian Gulf island during anti-government demonstrations that grew out of the "Arab Spring."
A fourth editor, Ali al Sherify, an Iraqi who was deported early last month, apparently will be tried in absentia.
The editors' court appearance lasted just 20 minutes, after which proceedings were adjourned until June so that the defendants can review the government's evidence against them.
The men have acknowledged that incorrect reports inadvertently appeared in the online version of their paper. But an investigation by the paper's staff suggests the editors were the victims of a setup. The probe found that the false reports all originated from a single Internet server in Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim country allied with the Sunni royal family that rules Bahrain. Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to Bahrain on March 15 to help quell protests that had paralyzed the country for a month.
Since then, Bahrain has undertaken an unprecedented effort to cow its opponents. The campaign has included arresting top politicians, prosecuting doctors and nurses who treated wounded protesters, dismissing more than 1,000 Shiite Muslim professionals and bulldozing dozens of Shiite mosques and religious structures. The government even dismantled the iconic Pearl Monument, which had been the rallying point for protesters.
The trial opened a day after a top-level U.S. delegation, led by James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state, met with King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa and most of his senior officials to discuss the crisis. Bahrain is the home port for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and U.S. officials have worried that the conflict could become a proxy battle between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran.
But the U.S. delegation apparently didn't meet with the opposition and didn't openly criticize the crackdown. Instead, its statement admonished Bahraini leaders to show "full respect for universal human rights" and pursue "a path of reconciliation and comprehensive political dialogue."
At the height of its circulation, Al Wasat sold about 15,000 copies, making it the country's top selling daily newspaper, with a robust advertising base. Now it's down to about 5,000, and advertisers have gone away.
Plans to close the paper, which investors announced after their annual general meeting earlier this month, were canceled after the government intervened with individual investors, according to a source close to the newspaper who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.
But the paper, former staff members say, is now just a mouthpiece for the government, and the crackdown has taken its toll.
One member of its board, Karim Farkhawi, was detained April 3 and died nine days later, one of four people who've died in government custody. A 26-year-old columnist and blogger, Haider Mohamad al Noaimi, was hauled off to prison late last month and remains in custody. Government authorities have interrogated at least six reporters and photographers in the past two weeks.
The media crackdown has extended to foreign reporters as well. The government expelled the last full-time Western correspondent, Reuters reporter Frederik Richter, and has blocked access to the country to nearly all foreign reporters, including McClatchy. Bahrain immigration on Tuesday night stopped a McClatchy reporter who was attempting to cover the Al Wasat trial Wednesday and told him to return to Abu Dhabi.
For Jamri, who founded Al Wasat after returning to Bahrain from exile in Britain at the invitation of King Hamad, the court charges are an outrage.
"I was invited by the king to come to Bahrain in 2001 and I founded this newspaper to support the reform project of the king. All our reporting, all our independent criticisms were within the spirit of the reform process inaugurated by the king in 2001. To be treated in this way is totally unexpected," he said.
(Two McClatchy special correspondents in Bahrain, whose names are being withheld out of concern for their safety, contributed to this report.)
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.