DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Bahrain's king set a fast-track timetable to end martial law-style rule Sunday in a bid to display confidence that authorities have smothered a pro-reform uprising even as rights groups denounced the hard-line measures.
The announcement to lift emergency rule two-weeks early on June 1 came just hours after the start of a closed-door trial accusing activists of plotting to overthrow the Gulf state's rulers.
The decision appears part of Bahrain's aggressive international campaign to reassure financial markets and win back high-profile events. They include the coveted Formula One grand prix that was canceled in March amid deadly clashes and protests by the country's majority Shiites, who are seeking greater rights and freedoms.
But the massive crackdown has come at a high price in the strategic island nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
At least 30 people have been killed since the protests began in February, inspired by revolts against autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. But tiny Bahrain also carries a volatile demographic mix. Shiites account for about 70 percent of the population, but claim widespread discrimination and are denied top posts in the government and security forces.
Tensions in the Gulf have soared between Shiite power Iran and the Sunni Arab rulers backing Bahrain. Iran has sharply condemned the three-month emergency rule imposed March 15 just as a 1,500-strong Saudi-led force arrived in Bahrain to support the monarchy. Gulf leaders, in turn, have strongly warned Iran to halt meddling in their affairs.
Meanwhile, watchdog groups — including the top U.N. rights agency — have accused Bahraini authorities of overstepping their bounds with closed-door trials and mass detentions of hundreds of protesters, activists and others. A major America labor organization, the AFL-CIO, is asking Washington to withdraw from a free-trade pact with Bahrain as punishment for pressuring Shiite-led unions.
U.S. official have tried to straddle two objectives: rapping Bahrain's leaders for violence and urging for reforms, but making sure there are no serious cracks in one of Washington's most important military alliance in the Gulf.
The declaration to remove the emergency rule gave no details of what would take its place, including whether the nighttime curfew would end or if the numerous checkpoints would be dismantled. Last month, Bahrain's foreign minister said the Saudi-led reinforcements would remain as long as there are perceived threats from Iran.
The latest indication of Bahrain's Iran worries came Sunday when 21 opposition leaders and political activists went on trial in a special security court set up under the emergency rule, which gives the military sweeping powers.
The suspects — 14 in custody and the others charged in absentia — are accused of attempting to overthrow the 200-year-old Sunni dynasty and having links to "a terrorist organization abroad working for a foreign country." No additional details were made public, but Bahrain's leaders have claimed that Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah is involved in Bahrain's protests.
Lawyers for those in custody entered not guilty pleas. Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said the closed-door proceedings violated international standards for a fair trial.
Late last month, the security court sentenced four protesters to death for killing two policemen in the unrest. Three other opposition supporters were convicted as accomplices in the murders and were sentenced to life in prison.
Among those charged on Sunday are senior Shiite opposition leaders such as Hassan Mushaima, the leader of Al Haq movement, and some of its senior members including Abdul Jalil al-Singace. Mushaima and al-Singace were among the first political leaders taken into custody after emergency rule was imposed.
Also among the suspects: Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the kingdom's leading human rights activist; Ibrahim Sharif, a prominent Sunni reform leader, and Ali Abdul Emam, a blogger and founder of a popular discussion forum known as Bahrain-On-Line. Al-Khawaja was beaten unconscious by police in his house in the outskirts of the capital, Manama, according to relatives who witnessed the raid.
Last week, authorities charged 23 doctors and 24 nurses with participating in illegal rallies or attempts to topple the ruling Al Khalifa family.
Some of the medical staff who treated protesters during the unprecedented political unrest will be tried in the same security court. Only select journalists are allowed to cover the trials after authorities put a gag order on legal proceedings against suspected opposition supporters.
Later this month, three former top editors of Bahrain's main opposition newspaper, Al Wasat, will be tried in a criminal court after authorities accused them of unethical coverage of the protests.
Al Wasat was to shut down Sunday, but the paper's board decided to continue publishing despite a significant drop in circulation and revenue since the three editors were forced to resign in April.
The political turmoil forced Bahrain's crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, to call off the Bahrain Grand Prix scheduled for March 13.
Last week, Formula One's governing body gave Bahrain until June 3 to decide if a new date could be set for this year. The task of persuading F1 overseers may be tough, however.
In an interview posted on the official F1 website, the sport's boss Bernie Ecclestone said officials would need "a guarantee that there won't be any problems" in Bahrain.
"But right now, I don't know how anybody could guarantee that because it might be peaceful now, but who knows in the future," he added.
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.