MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain’s public prosecutor on Monday questioned three senior journalists sacked from the Gulf kingdom’s only opposition newspaper over accusations of falsifying news about the government’s crackdown on protesters.
Separately, the Gulf Arab state said it had released 86 people held under martial law regulations, and accused a prominent rights activist of fabricating images of a corpse on the Internet and summoned him for questioning.
Bahrain has seen some of the worst unrest in its history since mostly Shi‘ite Muslim protesters took to the streets in February, inspired by uprisings that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, to demand a bigger say in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
The king invited in Saudi troops, imposed martial law and launched a crackdown on March 16 in which over 300 people have been detained. At least 13 civilians and four police have died.
The Al Wasat newspaper was suspended on April 2 over charges that it had falsified news, but resumed publishing the next day after its editor-in-chief Mansoor al-Jamri, its British managing editor Walid Noueihed and head of local news Aqeel Mirza agreed to resign.
On April 4, two Iraqi journalists working for Al Wasat, Raheem al-Kaabi and Ali al-Sherify, were deported without trial.
Bahrain’s attorney-general, Ali Bin Fadhl al-Bouainain, said Jamri, Noueihed and Mirza had been released pending trial in the criminal court once investigations were completed.
“The defendants were ... accused of publishing false news ... to disturb public peace and harm the general interests of the state and they were presented with the evidence,” Bouainain said in a statement carried by the official news agency BNA.
It was not clear what sentence might be imposed under martial law. The defendants said they had access to lawyers.
Jamri, who was questioned first, said six false news articles that appeared in Al Wasat had been emailed to the newspaper complete with fake phone numbers from the same IP address as part of an apparent campaign to plant disinformation.
He said these statements had slipped past editing checks because Al Wasat had been operating with a skeleton staff. Its printing press was attacked by thugs on March 14 and its offices were inside the curfew zone imposed the same week.
“I rejected all accusations that we knowingly published any false news destabilising the country,” Jamri told Reuters.
“They were asking how we did our work and who was responsible but I said I was, because we had reduced our staff. We were working under exceptional circumstances,” he said after his hearing, which lasted more than two hours.
“The mistake was not done on purpose. Someone trapped us.”
It was not clear when a trial would begin. Human Rights Watch said the cases should be dropped.
The agency BNA said “legal measures” were taken under martial law rules against the 86 detainees who were released, without clarifying whether they had been freed on bail and still faced charges or not.
Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said photos of one of two men who died at a detention centre on Saturday showed he had been tortured.
The state news agency BNA said the pictures were doctored.
“The deputy adviser for legal affairs at the interior ministry announced that Nabeel Rajab published false images on social media site Twitter of Ahmed Isa Sager,” BNA said.
Opposition groups have said they suspect both prisoners died from torture in detention. Bahrain denies any torture but says all accusations will be investigated.
“The adviser said that the images published were different to those taken of the deceased with the knowledge of the coroner after death,” BNA said, adding Rajab’s case would be transferred to military prosecutors.
It did not say how the pictures, the links to which Rajab posted on Twitter, had been doctored.
Rajab, who has not been questioned yet, said on Twitter the summons was aimed at hurting his credibility.
“The pictures are not fabricated,” he said. “It is the government that wasn’t showing or was hiding the marks on the body where it looks like it was tortured.”
The Geneva-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders denounced the questioning of Rajab.
Al Wasat began publication in 2002, after King Hamad released political prisoners, allowed exiles to return to Bahrain and promised to launch a programme of political reforms including wide-ranging constitutional changes.
Jamri, a prominent Bahraini commentator and driving force behind Al Wasat, returned from exile to found the newspaper.
A British-educated engineer, he was a leading moderate voice in Bahrain during weeks of protests.
In the days before the crackdown, when the main Shi‘ite opposition party Wefaq had set out a long list of conditions for dialogue with the royal family, Jamri -- son of a respected Shi‘ite cleric who led Bahrain’s opposition movement in the 1990s -- called in his daily column for talks.
Al Wasat did not back calls for the overthrow of the royal family, calling instead for political reforms.
The arrival of Al Wasat almost a decade ago transformed the media landscape in Bahrain, broaching topics that had previously been taboo and making life uncomfortable for several ministers. It is owned by a consortium of leading Bahraini businessmen.