MANAMA Bahrain's king has ordered a state of emergency to be lifted from June 1, after imposing it following weeks of Shi'ite-led street protests in the Gulf Arab kingdom, the state news agency said Sunday.
Bahrain, where the Sunni king rules over a Shi'ite majority, declared emergency law in March before forcibly quelling the protests calling for greater political freedoms, a constitutional monarchy and an end to sectarian discrimination.
"The state of national safety is lifted across the kingdom of Bahrain from June 1, 2011," state news agency BNA quoted the king's decree as saying. It had been due to expire in mid-June.
As Bahrain moved to put down the protests, neighboring Sunni-led Gulf states sent troops to back its forces, in turn boosting regional tension with nearby Shi'ite rival Iran, which Bahrain accuses of helping instigate the protests.
Since then, Bahrain has targeted demonstrators. Hundreds have been arrested and dozens put on trial in special courts. Others have been fired from government jobs.
The main Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq welcomed the king's move to lift emergency law as "very good news" and said it was the first sign authorities were relaxing their grip.
"The security forces can still do their normal business but we don't have to have the army in the streets," said Jasim Husain, a Wefaq politician. "I expect more gestures from the king in coming weeks. We have to get our house in order and move on as a nation."
At least 29 people, all but six of them Shi'ites, have been killed since the protests started in February, inspired by Arab revolts against autocratic rule that toppled the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia.
The six non-Shi'ites killed were an Indian and a Bangladeshi and four policemen, several of whom were hit by cars.
Bahrain put 21 opposition activists on trial in special courts Sunday, charged with trying to topple the government.
They included Shi'ite dissident Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the opposition group Haq who has called for the overthrow of the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy, and Ebrahim Shareef, the Sunni leader of the secular Waad group that has called for a constitutional monarchy but has not joined those seeking to oust the king.
The defendants, who also include a human rights activist who is a Danish citizen, were put on trial in a hybrid civilian-military court where military prosecutors try the case before a panel of one military and two civilian judges.
"Lawyers were called less than 24 hours before the trial started. They did not have time to prepare," Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said. State media said the trial was later adjourned to May 12 to give lawyers more time.
The state news agency said the men were accused of involvement in an "attempt to overthrow the government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country." Seven were being tried in absentia.
The state news agency did not say what penalty military prosecutors were seeking in the case. Rights activists say Bahrain's anti-terrorism law could make them eligible for the death penalty if convicted on the most serious counts.
In late April, a court sentenced four men to death for their role in killing two policemen during the unrest.
International rights groups have criticised the trials. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said it received credible reports that one of the 21 defendants, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was hospitalised after beatings while in custody.
Bahrain denies there is torture in its prisons and says all such accusations will be investigated.
Minister for Justice and Islamic Affairs Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa rejected the criticism and said all defendants would get fair trials and have the right to appeal verdicts.
"Bahrain is keen to honor its international obligations and respect human rights covenants," he said in remarks carried by pro-government media Sunday.
(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Janet Lawrence)