Bahraini Shiites go on trial for alleged coup plot

All 25 suspects plead not guilty of supporting terrorist cells as many complain about alleged torture behind bars.

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Authorities in Bahrain charged 25 Shiite Muslim activists of plotting against the country's Sunni rulers today after months of harsh crackdowns that have deeply shaken the island kingdom.

The suspects pleaded not guilty and many immediately complained about alleged torture behind bars in a sign of a combative atmosphere for the trial, which opened less than a week after highly charged parliamentary elections in the country.

The majority Shiites claim widespread discrimination, while Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty sees itself as under siege and facing possible threats from Shiite Iran.

Bahrain has been hit by sporadic unrest for decades as Shiites, who represent 70 percent of the nation's 530,000 citizens, press for a greater political voice and opportunities. Political reforms, including parliamentary elections, in the past decade have opened more room for Shiites. But they complain that the Sunni-directed system still excludes them from any key policymaking roles or top posts in the security forces.

The trial is likely to boost suspicions and anger on both sides.

The group is accused of supporting "terrorist" cells seeking to overthrow the ruling system. The original 23 suspects, whose names were splashed across state media last month, were unexpectedly joined by two other defendants, including a prominent blogger.

The level of concern by authorities was evident in the blanket security around the court in Bahrain's capital, Manama, including anti-riot police and helicopter surveillance. Only one family member for each suspect was allowed in the court gallery, alongside observers that included US diplomatic envoys and rights groups.

The proceedings were covered by Bahrain's state television, but reporting restrictions were placed on other local journalists.

The latest backlash from authorities began in August with the arrest of several prominent Shiite right activists. Shiites responded with street riots and wildcat protests. More than 250 people have been detained and several blogs and other media outlets have been silenced.

One of the lawyers for the alleged coup plotters, Mohammed al Tajer, said he has received reports from families of abuses including beatings and round-the-clock interrogations. Bahraini officials deny any of the detainees have been mistreated.

One of the suspects entered court with what appeared to be bandages on one leg. The reason was not immediately clear.

The original group of 23 includes the prominent rights activist Abdul-Jalil al Singace, who was taken into custody on August 13 as he returned from London with his family. The other alleged coup plotters range from professors to taxi drivers and a dentist, all facing possible life sentences if convicted.

The other two suspects include the Shiite political figure and blogger Ali Abdulemam, whose case has been taken up by media freedom groups.

In Bahrain's parliamentary elections last week, Shiites held on to their 18 seats in the 40-member chamber but are not expected to gain enough allies for a majority. The second round of voting is this Saturday.