Oct 28, 11:13 AM EDT

Bahrain court suspends main opposition group


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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) -- A Bahraini court ordered the activities of the country's main Shiite opposition group to be suspended on Tuesday, less than a month before parliamentary elections are to be held.

The ruling against Al-Wefaq means the group effectively cannot operate for three months in the Gulf island kingdom. It is prevented from organizing rallies and press conferences, issuing statements or using its offices, lawyer Abdullah al-Shamlawi told The Associated Press.

Al-Wefaq earlier this month announced it was boycotting elections scheduled for November 22. It does not feel the government has engaged in genuine reconciliation efforts following widespread protests directed at the Sunni monarchy that began in 2011 and were dominated by the kingdom's majority Shiites.

It slammed Tuesday's decision in a statement and vowed to "continue in its struggle for democratic transition and justice."

"Al Wefaq considers the measure irrational and irresponsible," it said, accusing the Bahraini leadership of "ruling with an iron fist" and attempting to crush the political life of the country. "The regime is heading to a unilateral life and replacing the people with sham foundations and projects," it said.

Al-Wefaq head Ali Salman told the AP he was surprised by the verdict.

"We will appeal for sure and will continue on our peaceful struggle and path," he said.

There was no immediate comment from government officials.

Al-Wefaq was established in 2002 after the announcement of political reforms the previous year.

Bahrain's Justice Ministry, headed by a member of the royal family, earlier this year filed a lawsuit against Al-Wefaq that led to Tuesday's decision. It said it was taking the group to court so it can "correct its legal status" after it failed to comply with rules of transparency when holding general meetings, according to a report at the time by the state news agency.

The lawsuit was filed just weeks after Al-Wefaq members met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, who was subsequently ordered to leave Bahrain. The expulsion has strained relations between Bahrain and longtime ally the United States, which bases the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in the country.

U.S.-based group Human Rights First warned that the move would likely increase instability in Bahrain as elections approach.

"With less than four weeks until Bahrain's parliamentary elections, the decision to suspend al Wefaq looks far from coincidental," said Brian Dooley, director of the organization's human rights defenders program. "Stifling peaceful dissent is inviting trouble, especially when political tensions are so high."

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