DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The slaying stunned the small island of Bahrain: A young mother gunned down in the street as her 6-year-old son watched from inside their car.
But who carried out the killing of 28-year-old Shiite woman Eman Salehi has become an even bigger controversy as activists abroad allege a member of Bahrain's Sunni royal family serving in the military pulled the trigger.
The accusation goes to the heart of lingering unrest on the island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, now five years on from its Arab Spring protests and in the grips of a renewed government crackdown on dissent.
"If you say it involves the military, it involves the king," said Said Yousif Almuhafdah of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "No one wants to mention that."
It's unclear what sparked the Dec. 23 shooting. Salehi, known for her piercing blue eyes and friendly demeanor, worked as a sports journalist for Bahrain's state-run television broadcaster.
That night, her car was stopped in the Bahraini city of Riffa, a community popular with members of the ruling Al Khalifa family and the military. A man shot Salehi once in the head, then immediately turned himself into authorities.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry issued only a terse statement on Twitter saying there had been a "murder of a female." The state-run Bahrain News Agency identified Salehi's killer as a "34-year-old Bahraini man" who "was referred to the relevant judicial party to continue the necessary legal procedures."
The Gulf Daily News, a pro-government English-language newspaper, went a step further, describing Salehi's assailant as an officer in the Bahraini Defense Force.
Activists abroad, including Almuhafdah and those affiliated with Bahrain Watch, identified the shooter as being a member of the Al Khalifa family, relying on information from locals on the ground.
The man named by activists could not be reached by The Associated Press.
Bahrain's Ministry of Information Affairs declined to comment on the case Tuesday. On Wednesday, however, Bahrain's state-run news agency published a story quoting Brig. Gen. Yussef Rashid Flaifel, the head of the country's military courts, as saying the armed forces were investigating the crime while the man accused remained in custody.
The "investigation is being conducted transparently, impartially and according to Bahrain's law," the story said, without identifying the suspected shooter.
In the meantime, Bahrain's state television channel has said that naming the accused in the case would be illegal, suggesting activists' comments have struck a nerve.
"The fact that the alleged perpetrator was a military officer and member of the ruling family has set this crime apart from others, testing the country's commitment to justice and accountability," said Faten Bushehri, an activist with Bahrain Watch.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and an under-construction British naval base. Independent news gathering has grown more difficult since the government began a crackdown on dissent in April that's seen activists exiled, its main Shiite opposition group dismantled and others imprisoned.
Activists fear that the investigation into Salehi's death will be buried, as military tribunals are conducted behind closed doors. Almuhafdah of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights pointed to soldiers shooting Abdulredha Buhamaid to death during the 2011 protests. The military later said its personnel acted within the law and denied they killed Buhamaid.
"For us, it's almost impossible," he said. "It's very difficult to get information."
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