MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahrain's High Criminal Court on Tuesday acquitted 19 Shiites accused of killing a policeman, prompting riotous celebrations around the island kingdom.
The court's decision is the latest in a series of pardons and acquittals in the trials of Shiites for anti-government activities that had inflamed popular sentiment against the regime of this U.S. ally.
"The presiding judge annulled the charges and ordered the release of the 19 persons citing lack of conclusive evidence on the actual act of willfully killing of the policeman," Mohammed al-Tajir, the head of the 15-man defense team told The Associated Press.
The trial of the Shiites had underscored tensions in Bahrain that stem from economic disparities between the predominantly Sunni ruling elite and the country's poorer, Shiite majority.
Crowds of relatives and supporters outside the courtroom erupted into cheers when the verdict was announced and danced in the streets and hugged each other. And elderly man even kissed a nearby police officer.
The men had been charged with the slaying of Pakistan-born policeman Majid Asghar Ali in the village of Karzakkan, west of the capital, during a Shiite protest there in April 2008.
The defense alleges that the evidence presented in the case was forged and during the trial produced a document saying the policeman had died months before the incident.
The preceding weeks have seen nightly demonstrations by Shiite villagers over the case. Police regularly dispersed the crowds with tear gas.
In place of protests, however, celebrations could be heard Tuesday in the Shiite villages around the island as people poured into the streets to applaud the verdict, creating major traffic jams.
Bahrain's Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the country's 450,000 citizens, complain of poverty, unemployment and a lack of services in their areas. Their discontent led to a wave of protests that roiled the Gulf island, with hundreds of Bahraini Shiites arrested.
Local and international human rights activists have condemned the detentions. In April, Bahrain's Sunni royal family released 225 of the arrested Shiites.
Among their grievances, Bahraini Shiites resent an alleged government practice of granting citizenship to Sunnis from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Baluchistan province in Pakistan and giving them housing and jobs, often in the security forces -- as in the case of the dead Pakistani officer.
The widespread use of these naturalized foreigners in the security services, according to the opposition, was behind the violence against demonstrators.
The kingdom is a close U.S. ally. The oil-refining and banking island also hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.