MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — The former chief editor of Bahrain's main independent newspaper claimed in court on Wednesday that apparent plotters in Saudi Arabia planted false news stories about abuses to discredit his paper during Shiite-led protests for greater rights in the Gulf kingdom.
Violence by security forces has been widespread and well documented since demonstrations broke out in February, inspired by uprisings in the Arab world. But the fabricated reports in Al Wasat newspaper were used by authorities to force out staff members and bring serious charges of encouraging unrest.
Al Wasat's former chief editor and founder, Mansoor al-Jamri, was linked to publishing false news stories and allegedly enflaming tensions. He has been free on bail since April.
His trial is part of a far-reaching crackdown by Bahrain's Sunni monarchy against perceived dissent. It has included hundreds of arrests, purges from workplaces and universities and accusations of anti-state conspiracies in the strategic island nation — home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bahrain's rulers have appealed for talks with opposition groups, but have not eased off on trials and other apparent pressure tactics. Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but claim they suffer from systematic discrimination that includes being blackballed from top military or government posts. In the latest blow, about 80 students were dismissed from the Bahrain Polytechnic school this week for allegedly links to the protests.
At least 31 people have died in the unrest in the past four months.
Al-Jamri testified Wednesday before the criminal court that the false stories — describing fabricated crackdowns by authorities — came from an Internet address in Saudi Arabia and were written in a way that did not raise suspicions by personnel at Al Wasat, which published the items.
"This was a very sophisticated plot," al-Jamri later told The Associated Press. "They made the stories look authentic and knew to send them at night when we only had one editor on duty."
Al-Jamri claims the paper was the victim of a plot to undermine its role as the main voice for pro-reform advocates. In March, apparent pro-government mobs badly damaged printing facilities at Al Wasat. Al-Jamri, who was granted bail during the proceedings, also claims that staff members received anonymous threats. His trial is scheduled to resume Sunday.
Bahrain's authorities have meanwhile steadily ramped up media campaigns to support the 200-year-old dynasty and challenge the many reports of heavy-handed tactics against the opposition.
On Thursday, the official Bahrain News Agency said it plans to file a lawsuit against the British newspaper The Independent for "wrong and defamatory" coverage. It gave no other details about the possible legal action and there was no immediate response from the London-based newspaper.
The Bahrain turmoil has presented a policy quandary for Washington.
U.S. officials have denounced the violence and urged for dialogue, but have stopped short on any more serious actions against the leadership in one of its most crucial allies in the Mideast. The State Department's top human rights envoy, Michael Posner, is in Bahrain for talks this week and is expected to brief reporters later Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the watchdog group Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to halt proceedings before the special military court set up as part of efforts to crush the protests.
It also urged Bahrain to free all those detained "solely for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly."
"Most defendants hauled before Bahrain's special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.