* Verdict delayed until Sept. 4 as street protests simmer
* Military court convicted 20 revolt leaders last year
* Civilian retrial ordered in April
* U.S. wants detainees freed to stabilise ally against Iran
DUBAI, Aug 14 Bahrain on Tuesday delayed until
next month a ruling in the retrial of 20 men convicted of
leading an uprising last year, lawyers said, a case under
scrutiny from U.S. officials keen for acquittals to help restore
calm in a regional ally against Iran.
Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, has been in
turmoil since a protest movement dominated by majority Shi'ite
Muslims erupted in February 2011 as part of the wave of popular
revolts against repressive dynasties across the Arab world.
The 20 men - including seven being tried in absentia - are
believed to be among hundreds who an international rights
commission assessed in November had been tortured during a
period of martial law imposed to help quell the uprising.
Bahrain's Sunni Muslim ruling family has faced calls from
the United States for the release of all those jailed over their
political views to defuse destabilising tensions and foster
reconciliation and democratic reforms.
Riot police continued to clash almost daily with protesters
in Shi'ite villages, while the interior ministry has banned
requests for legal opposition rallies since June.
"The verdict was delayed to Sept. 4," said Mohammed
Al-Jishi, a lawyer for some of the 13 men present in court for
an expected reading of verdicts. The ruling kept the men in jail
despite calls by protesters and rights groups for their release.
The presiding judge gave no reason for the postponement.
"It looks like the regime can't bring itself to take the
hard decisions when it comes to reform and reconciliation," said
Brian Dooley, director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at
U.S.-based group Human Rights First.
The hearing was attended by a number of foreign diplomats,
underlining how the outcome is expected to have a weighty impact
on the evolution of the turmoil in the Gulf Arab island state.
After the postponement was announced, angry defendants
chanted, "We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, Bahrain",
visibly angering the judge, according to Jishi and other lawyers
present in the courtroom.
CIVILIAN RETRIAL AFTER MILITARY CONVICTIONS
A military court sentenced the 20 men last year to jail
terms of up to life for organising the 2011 uprising. A military
appeals court upheld the sentences in September, but a civilian
court ordered a retrial in April.
The main charges were "forming a terrorist group with intent
to overthrow the system of government" as well as collaboration
with a foreign state - an apparent reference to Shi'ite giant
Iran across the Gulf from tiny Bahrain.
The defendants denied all such charges. Bahrain opposition
leaders have generally called for full powers for the elected
parliament to legislate and form governments.
Eight of the 20 men received life sentences, including
rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and opposition leaders
Hassan Mushaimaa and Abdulwahhab Hussein, who had called for
turning the Gulf Arab monarchy into a republic.
Sunni opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif was sentenced to five
years. Those tried in absentia include blogger Ali Abdulemam,
who was given a 15-year sentence and is in hiding.
London-based Amnesty International said last week it hoped
all Bahraini detainees would be released in Tuesday's session,
saying they were "prisoners of conscience".
Analysts say the government - long dominated by the Sunni Al
Khalifa family - is in a quandary over the case since the 20 men
have become popular heroes whose release they fear could
reinvigorate the protest movement and demands for reform.
The government has initiated some contacts with opposition
parties on reforms but no formal public dialogue has transpired.
Bahrain is caught up in regional rivalry between Iran and
Saudi Arabia. The presence of U.S. warships helps ensure a free
flow of oil exports out of the Gulf, while Tehran has threatened
a blockade if its stand-off with Western powers over its
disputed nuclear programme deteriorates into confrontation.