Bahrain says to review military court rulings

Saudi Arabia and Malta sign deals to cooperate on fighting terror, narcotics

Egypt’s SCAF says Shura Council elections to take place over two stages

Kuwait rejects Iran’s threats on continental shelf area

Yemen’s president reverses plans about U.S. trip, warns of state collapse

Bahrain said on Monday it would create a judicial panel to review some verdicts a military court issued over anti-government demonstrations mounted last year by the country's Shiite Muslim majority and crushed by the Sunni-led kingdom.

A statement carried by the official news agency BNA said the move was a response to recommendations of an inquiry into the turmoil commissioned by the Bahraini government.

Military courts issued at least five death sentences and sentenced some opposition leaders to life terms for organizing protests after last year's unrest, among a slew of pro-democracy movements that swept across the Arab world.

The United States, whose Fifth Fleet Bahrain hosts, has said a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain depends on its response to the recommendations of the inquiry, which found detainees had been systematically abused and in some cases tortured to death.

Monday's statement said judges from civilian courts in the Gulf island kingdom would be part of a body reviewing verdicts issued by the military tribunal that were not subject to appeal.

Rulings subject to review would include convictions for statements that did not amount to incitement to violence, it said. The inquiry had criticized such convictions as punishing free speech.

The "National Safety" tribunals, in which Bahrain prosecuted some of the more than 1,000 people detained in the aftermath of the protests that rocked the kingdom in February, did not initially allow appeals.

Bahrain subsequently transferred some cases to civilian courts and allowed them to hear appeals of verdicts handed down by the military tribunals.

Matar Ibrahim Matar, a former MP whose bloc, the largest Shiite opposition group, quit parliament to protest the crackdown, said the government was paying lip service to free speech while continuing to punish dissidence.

"(Authorities are) still charging people with the same charges described by the report and human rights organizations as incompatible with the right of expression and free speech," he told Reuters.

Separately, BNA said the head of the body charged with implementing the recommendations of the inquiry was continuing to work, apparently responding to a report in the opposition Al Wasat daily that he had resigned.

The inquiry dismissed Bahrain's claim that Shiite Iran stoked unrest through its co-religionists, who complain of discrimination in access to land and state employment.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Malta signed on Tuesday night an agreement to fight drug trafficking and organized crime in Riyadh.

The two countries also entered into a new era of economic relations by signing an avoidance of double taxation treaty on Wednesday with a renewed pledge to strengthen trade and investment ties further.

On behalf of Saudi Arabia, the cooperation agreement to curb illicit trafficking of drugs and psychotropic substances and to fight organized crime was signed by Prince Ahmed, deputy minister of interior.

"Tonio Borg, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, endorsed the agreement from Maltese side," said Maltese Ambassador Frank Galea.

Galea said Minister of Finance Ibrahim Al-Assaf signed the double taxation treaty for the Kingdom, while Borg again represented Malta.

"The agreement will provide a significant boost to bilateral trade and investment flows," said Borg, while speaking on this occasion.

The deputy premier also disclosed plans on the visits of high-ranking Maltese officials, including the head of state in the near future.

Referring to discussions with Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Borg said he would welcome the opening of a Saudi embassy in Malta.

"This came up during our talks," said Borg, adding that Kuwait recently opened its embassy in Valletta.

The deputy premier, who also met with officials of the Higher Education Ministry and the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, said Malta, a southern European nation situated strategically in the center of the Mediterranean near Libya and Tunisia, has an embassy in Riyadh and an honorary consulate in Jeddah.

Currently, the Saudi Embassy in Rome is also accredited to Malta.

He also called for promoting cooperation between the Riyadh-based Institute of Diplomatic Studies and the Valetta-based Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies (MEDAC), a higher learning institution offering advanced degrees in diplomacy and conflict resolution with a focus on Mediterranean issues.

Borg said cooperation between the two countries was in place and this could be further reinforced by establishing a Saudi chair at the MEDAC.

A premier diplomatic academy, MEDAC was established back in 1990 in line with an agreement between the governments of Malta and Switzerland.

The Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI) was among its first foreign partners. More recently, MEDAC concluded an agreement with the German Academic Exchange Service and established a German Chair in Peace Studies and Conflict Prevention.

On a regional level, Malta seeks more engagement while its role, of late, is growing both politically and commercially. The country is also looking at the possibility of exploring petroleum opportunities in waters adjoining the borders of Italy and Libya.

"Malta has made a proposal to Libya and Italy as a possible solution to the continental shelf issue, which has been pending for years," said Borg, adding that an agreement is needed for oil exploration in the area.

He said that there was a possibility of oil being discovered in unmarked Maltese, Libyan and Italian waters. Malta, Borg said, believed "the best solution was joint exploration by all the countries concerned, but this could not be done before an agreement was reached."

He said none of the three countries (Malta, Libya or Italy) were drilling for oil in the contested areas at the moment.

Meanwhile, elections of Egypt’s Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, are to be conducted on January 29, under a decree by Chief of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. The elections will be held through two stages and last until mid-February.

The first stage will be held in Cairo, Alexandria, Gharbiya, Daqahliya, Menoufiya, Damietta, North Sinai, South Sinai, Fayyoum, Asyut, Qena, Red Sea, and New Valley, on Sunday and Monday (January 29-30). Runoff elections will be held on Tuesday (February 7).

The second phase will be conducted in Giza, Qalyubiya, Sharqiya, Beheira, Kafr al-Sheikh, Ismailiya, Port Said, Suez, Matrouh, Beni Suef, Menya, Sohag, Luxor and Aswan on Tuesday and Wednesday (February 14-15). Runoffs will take place on Wednesday (February 22).

On the other hand, Kuwait has summoned the Iranian Charge d’Affaires in Kuwait City over recent remarks by Iran that it planned to develop unilaterally a disputed gas field.

Khalid Al Jarallah, the undersecretary of the foreign affairs ministry, presented a relevant protest to the Iranian diplomat Sayed Shihabi,” Kuwait News Agency (Kuna) reported.

“The diplomat was summoned after the managing director of National Iranian Continental Shelf Oil Company (NICSOC) unveiled an Iranian plan to produce oil at the continental shelf area in a unilateral manner unless a relevant agreement was reached with Kuwait,” the official news agency said.

On Sunday, Mahmoud Zirakchianzadeh, the head of Iran’s Offshore Oil Company, said that Tehran would launch unilateral development of the disputed offshore Durra (Arash for the Iranians) gas field in the Gulf if Kuwait did not respond to its joint development offer.

“The emphasis presently is on joint partnership strategy rather than competition,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Zirakchianzadeh as saying. “We are hopeful to reach a conclusion with Kuwait over the development of the shared Arash field. However, if Iran’s positive diplomacy is turned down, we will be carrying on our efforts at Arash field unilaterally just as we did in Hengam oil field,” Zirakchianzadeh said.

Iran is developing on its own its part of the offshore Hengam oil field it shares with Oman.

However, Al Jarallah said that the disputed natural gas-rich maritime border area was subject to bilateral negotiations for final demarcation and neither side should act unilaterally in the area until it is fully delineated.

The Durra field, on the continental shelf between OPEC producers Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been a bone of contention between Tehran and Kuwait City since the 1960s.

For more than 10 years, the two countries have held unsuccessful talks to resolve the dispute.

In Yemen, a senior aide said Wednesday that President Ali Abdullah Saleh will not travel to the United States, reversing a pledge by the leader who has withstood nearly a year of protests and military challenges from rivals seeking to topple him.

Saleh announced he would visit the United States last month, hours after forces loyal to him killed protesters demanding he face trial for killings during an uprising aimed at ending his 33-year rule.

He would enjoy immunity from prosecution under a deal crafted by his wealthier neighbors and backed by Washington – which long backed Saleh as a pillar of its “counter-terrorism” strategy – aimed at averting civil war by easing him from power.

The United States has said it is considering giving Saleh a visa for medical treatment, a decision critics of the U.S. administration’s Yemen policy have said lends the impression that Washington is sheltering Saleh.

“The idea of President Saleh’s visit to America is now unlikely,” Abdou al-Janadi, who is a senior figure in Saleh’s political party and Yemen’s deputy information minister, told reporters Wednesday.

He said members of Saleh’s party asked him to remain and help ensure that the deputy to whom Saleh has formally transferred power succeeds him in an election set for February.

“[They] ... have asked the president not to travel under these circumstances because they fear that if he does, implementation of the Gulf initiative will bog down and the presidential election will be a failure,” Janadi said. “His staying helps guarantee the success of the national unity candidate, [acting leader] Abed-Rabbou Mansour Hadi.”

The U.S. and oil giant Saudi Arabia fear uncertainty over Saleh’s fate could push the country into chaos and embolden Yemen’s Al-Qaeda wing, which has plotted attacks abroad.

Islamic militants stormed a hotel where alcohol is served in a southern Yemeni city, setting the building on fire, killing two people and wounding 20.

The brazen attack illustrated how the militants, including Yemen’s dangerous Al-Qaeda branch, have gained strength and are showing increased boldness in southern Yemen.

The militants have taken advantage of a security vacuum resulting from nearly a year of internal political turmoil over demands Saleh step down. His agreement to a power transfer plan has not quelled the unrest.

The hotel became a target for the militants because Muslims are forbidden from drinking alcohol.

Other reports said the attack was prompted by allegations that the hotel was used for prostitution.

A hotel guest said about five masked gunmen stormed the hotel in the morning, shooting in all directions. Then they poured fuel on the hotel’s carpets and set them on fire.

The guest spoke on condition of anonymity fearing militants’ reprisal.

Nabil Mohammad Youssef, who lives near the hotel in Aden, said many hotel guests jumped from their rooms on the second and third floors, while others made their escape using bed sheets tied together.

Three years ago, Islamic militants attacked and set fire to a social club of the Ethiopian community in Aden because it served alcohol.