US concerned at moves to suspend Bahrain opposition

Washington (AFP) - The United States has "strong concerns" about a lawsuit filed in Bahrain to suspend the activities of the Gulf kingdom's largest Shiite opposition group, a US official said Tuesday.

Bahrain moved to suspend Al-Wefaq for three months for allegedly violating the kingdom's law on associations, the official BNA news agency reported Sunday.

Al-Wefaq has led the protest movement that started in February 2011 by Bahrain's Shiite majority against the ruling Sunni regime and has repeatedly called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

Political parties are banned in Bahrain, as in other Gulf Arab monarchies, and Al-Wefaq has the status of an association in the country which is a key regional US ally.

"We are aware of the lawsuit and are closely following the case," a State Department official told AFP.

While the courts were still reviewing the case, "we have strong concerns about the decision to pursue this case, and its potential impact on upcoming elections" which are expected later in the year.

"All sides need to look for ways to build confidence at this time, and move forward on the dialogue process," the US official added.

Earlier this month, Bahrain's chief prosecutor charged the head of Al-Wefaq, cleric Ali Salman, and his political assistant, ex-MP Khalil Marzooq, with violating a law on foreign contacts after they met the US Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, who was also asked to leave the country.

Rights activist Brian Dooley said the move against Al-Wefaq "seems designed to sabotage moves towards reconciliation."

"Political dialogue seems more remote than ever and makes you wonder who in the Bahrain government is making these terrible decisions," said Dooley from Human Rights First.

Bahrain is a strategic archipelago just across the Gulf from Iran and is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

But the upheaval has caused concerns in the United States, and one lawmaker wrote Tuesday that the kingdom "is increasingly proving itself to be undependable and erratic -- putting the long-term viability of our presence in the country at risk."

Congressman Hank Johnson, who sits on the House Armed Forces committee, wrote in The Hill daily that the decision "to publicly expel one of our nation's top diplomats without warning, calls into question how much we can count on the government of Bahrain as a dependable ally."