* Court voids conviction of Nabeel Rajab over critical tweet
* Will examine Rajab's jailing for spearheading protests
* Bahrain in crisis for 18 months over Shi'ite reform
DUBAI, Aug 23 A Bahrain appeals court acquitted
leading rights activist Nabeel Rajab on Thursday of insulting
some Bahrainis in a tweet criticising the veteran prime
minister, his lawyer said, but he remains in jail over other
Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based as a bulwark
against Iran and any threats to oil shipping out of the Gulf,
has been in turmoil for 18 months with majority Shi'ite Muslims
agitating for democratic reforms in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was
sentenced in July to three months in prison for suggesting via
Twitter that residents of al-Muharraq district had made a recent
show of support for Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the
prime minister, only for financial gain.
"The judge ruled his innocence. Nabeel and representatives
of many foreign embassies were present. I was able to meet him
for a few minutes," lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi told Reuters.
The state news agency BNA said the judge acquitted Rajab
because he was not satisfied with the evidence put forward.
Rajab has led many demonstrations calling for a reduction in
the powers of the Al Khalifa dynasty that has long ruled the
Gulf Arab state. Analysts see the prime minister as a pillar of
steadfastness in the government against opposition demands.
A hero to protesters but villain for those Bahrainis who
fear the protests will bring Shi'ite Islamists to power, Rajab
was sentenced to three years in prison last week on three
charges of leading protests. Prosecutors said Rajab had incited
violence against police.
Rights groups and Western governments criticised that case
and the appeals court is due to examine it on Sept. 10.
Shi'ite-led unrest has persisted since a period of martial
law last year that put down the uprising. The sides trade blame
for almost daily outbreaks of street violence.
Opposition parties led by the Shi'ite group Wefaq are
demanding full powers for the elected parliament to legislate
and form governments. Many Shi'ites complain of political and
economic marginalisation, a charge the government denies.
In response to the unrest, the Al Khalifas have increased
parliament's powers of scrutiny over ministers and say policing
is being revamped to conform with international standards.
Though the United States has pushed Bahrain's rulers to
resolve the conflict through talks, it values close relations
with the ruling family since it allows the U.S. Fifth Fleet to
run its operations out of a Manama base.
Bahrain has been caught in a regional competition for
predominance between Iran and U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia. Riyadh
sent troops to shore up the government last year, while Iran has
positioned itself as a champion of the opposition's cause while
denying accusations that it is orchestrating the unrest.
Fifth Fleet warships help ensure oil exports flow freely out
of the Gulf. Iran has threatened a blockade if its protracted
stand-off with Western powers over its disputed nuclear
programme degenerates into conflict.