A Bahraini court on Wednesday ordered the dissolution of the main secular opposition group which the government accuses of supporting terrorism, a ruling that human rights campaigners said was aimed at silencing peaceful dissent.
The National Democratic Action Society (Waad), a social and political association in a country where parties are not allowed, campaigns for democracy, human rights and social freedoms.
It tweeted that the court had ordered it dissolved and its assets seized. The ruling is subject to appeal.
The Justice Ministry, which filed a case against Waad in March accusing it of "serious violations targeting the principle of respecting the rule of law, supporting terrorism and sanctioning violence," welcomed the court ruling.
The court said the group had glorified as "martyrs of the homeland" men convicted of killing three police officers in a bomb attack in 2014, the ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency BNA.
The men were executed this year, Bahrain's first use of capital punishment in years.
"SILENCING PEACEFUL DISSENT"
Later in the evening, police blocked roads around Waad's headquarters preventing people from getting through, Redha al-Mosawi, a leader of the group, tweeted.
The group had intended to brief journalists during an evening gathering it organizes for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said the court ruling was part of a wider crackdown on opposition groups and would prove counter-productive.
"The government of Bahrain is acting with the aim of totally silencing all peaceful voices, leaving open the alternative of underground opposition and violence," the group's director of advocacy, Sayed Alwadaei, said in an email.
Amnesty International said the ruling was "a flagrant attack on freedom of expression and association".
"By banning major political opposition groups, Bahrain is now heading towards total suppression of human rights," Lynn Maalouf, director of research at Amnesty International’s Beirut office, said in a statement.
The Western-allied kingdom, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, has been a flashpoint since "Arab Spring" protests in 2011 were put down by the Sunni-led government with the help of neighbouring Gulf Arab states.
The crackdown entered a new phase last year when authorities banned the main Shi'ite Muslim opposition group, al-Wefaq, and revoked the citizenship of Ayatollah Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain's Shi'ites, accusing him of fomenting sectarian divisions.
Last week, five people were killed and nearly 300 detained when security forces moved against Qassim's home village of Diraz, near the capital Manama, where supporters had camped out in protest at his citizenship being revoked.
The raid came days after U.S. President Donald Trump said during a visit to Riyadh where he met Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa that Washington's ties with the Sunni-ruled kingdom - long strained over its human rights record - would improve.
Attacks on public targets have increased since the executions of the three men convicted of the police bombing. Bahrain accuses Shi'ite Iran of fomenting violence in the kingdom, something Tehran denies.