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Bahrain's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric trial postponed till May

DUBAI A Bahraini court on Tuesday delayed a ruling in the trial of the spiritual leader of the country’s Shi’ite Muslim majority on charges of collecting funds illegally and money laundering, local media reported.

Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who is in his mid-70s, faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted in the trial that has ratcheted up tensions in the Western-allied Gulf Arab state where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based.

The kingdom had been convulsed by occasional protests since authorities crushed 2011 protests mainly by Shi’ites demanding a bigger share in running the country.

The court had been expected to issue a ruling on Tuesday. But the Arabic-language al-Wassat said that, after convening under heavy security, it postponed the ruling in Qassim’s case until May 7, giving no reason for the decision.

Overnight, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Qasim’s village west of the capital Manama, to show their support for the elderly cleric, according to videos and pictures posted online by activists.

Qassim also faces expulsion from the kingdom after authorities revoked his citizenship last year for alleged foreign links and fomenting violence, charges he had denied.

The charges emanate from the collection of an Islamic tax called Khums, which in Shi’ite Islam is collected and spent by a senior cleric in the interest of the needy.

Qassim’s defence lawyers have refused to attend the hearing, which they saw as an attack on the country’s Shi’tes.

State news agency BNA, which also reported the postponement, quoted the public prosecutor as saying Qassim and two other co-defendants are accused of collecting donations without permission and “conducting operations with the aim of hiding its source and to render it legal”.

“It is a strictly an organisational matter that has nothing to do with religious duties,” he added, according to BNA.

The trial is part of a wider crackdown on dissent that included a ban last year on the main Shi’ite Muslim group Wefaq. Authorities accuse it of fomenting sectarian unrest and having links to a foreign power, an apparent reference to Iran.

Bahrain’s justice ministry took steps last week to dissolve the secular National Democratic Action Society (Waad) it accuses of supporting terrorism.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; editing by Sami Aboudi and Dominic Evans)