DUBAI, March 14 A Bahraini court on Tuesday
delayed a ruling in the trial of the spiritual leader of the
country's Shi'ite Muslim majority on charges of collecting funds
illegally and money laundering, local media reported.
Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who is in his mid-70s, faces up to 15
years in jail if convicted in the trial that has ratcheted up
tensions in the Western-allied Gulf Arab state where the U.S.
Fifth Fleet is based.
The kingdom had been convulsed by occasional protests since
authorities crushed 2011 protests mainly by Shi'ites demanding a
bigger share in running the country.
The court had been expected to issue a ruling on Tuesday.
But the Arabic-language al-Wassat said that, after convening
under heavy security, it postponed the ruling in Qassim's case
until May 7, giving no reason for the decision.
Overnight, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in
Qasim's village west of the capital Manama, to show their
support for the elderly cleric, according to videos and pictures
posted online by activists.
Qassim also faces expulsion from the kingdom after
authorities revoked his citizenship last year for alleged
foreign links and fomenting violence, charges he had denied.
The charges emanate from the collection of an Islamic tax
called Khums, which in Shi'ite Islam is collected and spent by a
senior cleric in the interest of the needy.
Qassim's defence lawyers have refused to attend the hearing,
which they saw as an attack on the country's Shi'tes.
State news agency BNA, which also reported the postponement,
quoted the public prosecutor as saying Qassim and two other
co-defendants are accused of collecting donations without
permission and "conducting operations with the aim of hiding its
source and to render it legal".
"It is a strictly an organisational matter that has nothing
to do with religious duties," he added, according to BNA.
The trial is part of a wider crackdown on dissent that
included a ban last year on the main Shi'ite Muslim group Wefaq.
Authorities accuse it of fomenting sectarian unrest and having
links to a foreign power, an apparent reference to Iran.
Bahrain's justice ministry took steps last week to dissolve
the secular National Democratic Action Society (Waad) it accuses
of supporting terrorism.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; editing by Sami Aboudi and