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Nov 24, 9:37 AM EST

Rights group, embassy say charges against Bahraini dropped



DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- A charge against Bahraini political activist Ebrahim Sharif accusing him of "inciting hatred" in the Gulf island kingdom has been dropped, a rights group and the British Embassy said Thursday.

Sharif, a leader in the secular, leftist Waad Party, was questioned and charged earlier this month after giving an interview to The Associated Press about a visit to the kingdom by Britain's Prince Charles.

In his interview, Sharif expressed concern that a visit to the kingdom by Britain's Prince Charles could "whitewash" a crackdown on dissent. He also said that the government, which is dominated by the ruling family and its supporters, should work with opposition groups.

Bahrain is an important Mideast ally of the United States and Britain that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

It was rocked by widespread protests during the 2011 Arab Spring, with majority Shiites and others demanding greater political freedoms from the Sunni monarchy. The protests were soon put down with help from nearby Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, though low-level unrest continues. Prominent opposition leaders and human rights activists remain behind bars or, in some cases, have fled the country.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the London-based director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, told The Associated Press on Thursday that Sharif confirmed to him that the charges have been dropped, citing a call by the public prosecution to his lawyers.

"If it wasn't a big embarrassment for Prince Charles we might have seen a different result," Alwadaei said. "The U.K. must use its leverage to call for the release of all prisoners of conscience in Bahrain."

The British Embassy to Bahrain separately said on Twitter that the case against Sharif is closed and charges have been dropped. It said Britain welcomed the "positive outcome on this case."

Sharif and his lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.

Bahrain's government did not confirm that charges had formally been dropped, but said in a statement that Sharif was never arrested or detained and "voluntarily attended questioning following allegations that he had incited hatred."

It added that no one in Bahrain can be detained for expressing "peaceful political views, as citizens' right to freedom of opinion and expression is fully protected by Bahrain's laws and constitution."

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