MANAMA, Bahrain - Supporters of a Bahraini human rights worker scuffled with police and shouted slogans against the prime minister outside the court Wednesday as a judge denied bail to the activist, who is being prosecuted after criticizing the Gulf nation's leadership
Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd of about 100 supporters of Abdul-Hadi al-Khawajah, executive director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was detained Sept. 25 after publicly calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa
Al-Khawajah, who arrived in court in hand-cuffs, pleaded not guilty to charges of inciting hatred against the government and circulating false information about government officials
Judge Syed Mohammed Kafrawi asked al-Khawajah if in his speech last month he had made any personal comments about the prime minister. The defendant replied "No," and said he expressed only his "political beliefs and thoughts"
Defense lawyer Mohammed Ahmed told the judge that the detention of al-Khawaja was "unconstitutional because it restricts the right of freedom of speech." But the judge refused the request to release al-Khawajah on bail
The judge adjourned the trial to Monday to give the defense more time to prepare its case
The crowd outside the court building held banners reading "PM: time for you to go" and chanted "Death to Khalifa," referring to the prime minister
Police scuffled with the protesters as the crowd tried to force its way into the courtroom
One protester managed to squeeze past the police and rushed into the court shouting, "Long live Abdul-Hadi!"
The judge stopped proceedings as police hustled the protester out of the court and arrested him
When police fired tear gas, it dispersed the crowd temporarily, but the gas drifted into the court building and caused choking in the corridors. One police officer was overwhelmed by tear gas fumes. Other police officers carried him away for medical attention
Last month Al-Khawajah called at a symposium for the prime minister to step down, blaming him for economic failures and human rights violations
Bahrain is one of the few states in the Gulf where peaceful protests are tolerated. But public criticism of a member of the ruling family is rare. After al-Khawajah's arrest last month, his supporters have launched an unprecedented series of demonstrations targeting the prime minister
Bahrain's king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has warned clubs and societies against holding meetings that criticize the country's leadership. He has also expressed confidence in the longtime prime minister, who is his uncle
Since taking office in 1999, the king has taken bold steps to move Bahrain from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. He pardoned more than 1,000 political prisoners and allowed exiles to return. In 2002, Bahrain held its first parliamentary elections in three decades
But critics charge his reforms do not go far enough toward freedom of expression and democracy