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Opposition: Bahrain dissolves key Shiite council

January 29, 2014 GMT

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A Bahraini court ordered Wednesday that a council of Shiite clerics be disbanded, the group and the country’s main opposition group said, a decision likely to exacerbate strained political tensions in the small Gulf island kingdom.

Authorities brought the case against the Olamaa Islamic Council last year, alleging that it operated outside the law. The council is headed by Sheik Isa Qassim, a prominent cleric with a significant following among Bahrain’s Shiite population.

Bahrain has seen three years of unrest between opposition groups dominated by the country’s Shiite majority who are demanding greater political rights from the country’s Sunni rulers. The country is a longtime Western ally that is host to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Senior Shiite religious leaders including Qassim have encouraged peaceful anti-government protests. Breakaway groups of activists often clash with riot police during demonstrations.

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Shiite opposition bloc al-Wefaq said that the verdict against the clerical council was issued Wednesday and amounts to a “war” against the Muslim sect.

There was no official confirmation of the suspension, and authorities had no immediate comment.

The council itself suggested it was a political decision, saying it “represents the political regime and its establishment.” It described the verdict as a “black page in the history of Bahrain’s judiciary” and vowed that the clerics will continue to do their work, saying they are “integral” to society.

Defense lawyer Abdullah al-Shamlawi said the council would appeal the verdict.

More than 65 people have died since protesters took to the streets in Bahrain’s Arab Spring-inspired uprising in early 2011. Rights groups and others place the death toll higher.