DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain charged 169 people on Tuesday suspected of forming "Bahrain's Hezbollah", a local version of the armed Shi'ite group, which prosecutors said was trained and backed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The announcement follows scores of arrests and harsh penalties imposed in the Western-allied Gulf state on defendants accused by the authorities of militancy, who activists say are mostly peaceful opposition members.
Bahrain, a strategic island where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, has a Shi’ite Muslim majority population but is ruled by a Sunni royal family. It has long accused mainly Shi’ite Iran of stoking militancy, which Tehran denies.
A statement carried by the state news agency BNA said the prosecutor charged 169 defendants, including 111 who had already been arrested. They were accused of forming a terrorist group, planning assassinations and receiving training in handling weapons and manufacturing explosives.
"The Public Prosecution had been informed by the Department of criminal investigation ...that Iran's Revolutionary Guards have ordered some of their members to work on unifying different Bahraini militant groups," the statement said.
"(The groups) would get involved in one terrorist organisation which they called Bahrain's Hezbollah," it said, adding the group was planning to send Bahrainis to Iraq, Lebanon and Iran for military training.
A trial is set for Oct. 3, BNA said.
Bahrain has stepped up a crackdown on critics, shutting down two main political groups, revoking the citizenship of the spiritual leader of the Shi’ite Muslim community and jailing rights campaigners.
The kingdom has seen occasional unrest since 2011 when authorities crushed pro-democracy protests mainly by the Shi’ite community demanding a bigger role in running the country. Demonstrators have clashed frequently with security forces, which have been targeted by several bomb attacks.
U.N. and rights groups accused Bahrain's government of crushing dissent and violently cracking down on protests and members of a peaceful political opposition.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Peter Graff)