MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahrain's Justice Ministry warned Tuesday that authorities will not ease pressure on anti-government groups after emergency laws are removed even as the nation's king appealed for dialogue.
The sharply worded statement -- a day before officials plan to lift the martial law-style rules -- contrasted with a message from Bahrain's king urging for "unity talks" with protest factions and others beginning in July.
But King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, in comments carried on the official Bahrain News Agency, stopped short of spelling out specific reforms that could satisfy the Shiite-led protesters, who began demonstrations in February for more political rights in the Gulf island kingdom.
Shiite comprise about 70 percent of the population, but complain of discrimination at the hands of the nation's Sunni rulers.
The Justice Ministry called the demonstrations "criminal acts and abuses against the nation's security and unity" and warned that any further challenges to authorities will face "all resulted consequences."
At least 30 people have been killed since anti-government protests began in the Western-allied nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. A special military court has issued rulings including death sentences for two men accused of killing two policemen during the unrest.
The emergency rule imposed in March -- which gave wide powers to the military -- was part of far-reaching crackdowns that included hundreds of arrests of activists, journalists and political figures. A leading human rights monitor, Nabeel Rajab, said Tuesday he was ordered to appear before prosecutors.
The king suggested the proposed dialogue could be broad-based and "without preconditions."
Reform is the mission from which we shall not digress," the king told a group of Bahraini journalists. "It is an expression of belief and determination between us and our people."
Bahrain's Sunni rulers also are backed by a 1,500-story Gulf military force led by neighboring Saudi Arabia, which will remain in the country after the emergency rules are scheduled to be lifted Wednesday.
The Saudi intervention reflects how the Bahrain tensions have become a magnet for the region's fears over Shiite power Iran.
Gulf Arab leaders believe that gains by Bahrain's Shiites could provide an opening for Iran to expand its influence on the doorstep of rival Saudi Arabia. Bahrain's rulers also have accused Iran-backed groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah of links to alleged plots to overthrow the more than 200-year-old Sunni dynasty.
Political groups among Bahrain's Shiite majority, however, disavow any links to Iran or other factions and say they only seek for rights.
U.S. officials have followed a careful line with Bahrain: denouncing violence and encouraging its strategic ally to open talks with protest groups, but avoiding any direct punishments against the monarchy.
The unrest has taken a toll on Bahrain's economy and tourism, including forcing the cancellation of its season-opening Formula One race in March.
Zayed Rashid Alzayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit which hosts the race, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that seek to hold the race in October or November.
The decision on whether the race goes ahead, and when, will be made during Friday's World Motor Sport Council meeting in Barcelona.