Bahrain's conflict with the United States worsened Thursday, as the Persian Gulf emirate filed criminal charges against the country's leading opposition figure for holding a meeting this week with a senior U.S. diplomat.
Officials accused Sheik Ali Salman, head of Wefaq, the country's largest opposition group, of violating a "political associations law" by meeting without government permission with Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor.
Malinowski was expelled from the country this week for the meeting, which Bahrain saw as meddling in its internal affairs.
Bahrain's Sunni-led government has been at odds with its largely impoverished Shiite majority since the 2011 "Arab Spring" democracy movement. U.S. officials have been trying to broker a settlement, but some senior Bahraini officials are deeply suspicious of U.S. contact with the Shiites.
They declared Malinowski persona non grata on Monday, after he refused to allow a government aide to attend his meeting with Salman.
The State Department disclosed Thursday that it had summoned Bahrain's charge d'affaires in Washington on Tuesday to protest Malinowski's expulsion. That step is a mild response to the expulsion of a senior diplomat; often, the State Department retaliates in such cases by expelling a senior diplomat from the other country.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the department had "deep concern" that Salman had been interrogated after meeting with Malinowski.
But the Obama administration is trying to balance its interest in advocating human rights and democracy in Bahrain with its interest in maintaining good relations with an Arab partner. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and it has been a key ally in trying to limit the influence of Iran in the region.
"We look to the government of Bahrain to take actions consistent with our strong bilateral relationship," Psaki said in a statement.
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