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Bahrain sentences four protesters to death, deepening anger among Shiites

A military court today sentenced four Shiite demonstrators to death, and handed life sentences to three more, for the deaths of two policemen. Rights activists say the detainees were tortured and denied legal rights.

By Correspondent / April 28, 2011

In this Feb. 18 file photo, Bahraini antigovernment demonstrators run during clashes between protesters and the Bahraini army during a demonstration in Manama, Bahrain. A military court in the Gulf kingdom has convicted four Shiite protesters and sentenced them to death, Thursday, April 28, for the killing two policemen during antigovernment demonstrations last month.

Hassan Ammar/AP

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A Bahrain military court today sentenced four antigovernment Shiite demonstrators to death after finding them guilty of murdering two policemen during protests that have rocked the small kingdom.

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The death sentences take the Sunni government’s crackdown against protesters and the Shiite population to a new level, deepening anger among the majority Shiite population and stoking sectarian divisions.

“This is a period of punishment and of purging that's intended to weaken the opposition, to intimidate the opposition, and probably to put so much pressure on the opposition that it will fragment and it will be consumed with infighting,” says Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Bahrain protests: Five key facts

The trial was the first legal action the government has brought against protesters whose uprising began in February calling for democratic reform, but a government official said Wednesday that it would not be the last.

Trial stokes social divisions

Human rights activists say the two-week trial, held behind closed doors with lawyers and the press forbidden to speak or write about it, ignored international rights standards and that false confessions were likely forced by torture. Three other demonstrators, all from the majority Shiite population, were sentenced to life in prison, after the government said they confessed to using vehicles to run over the policemen.

Even as lawyers vowed to appeal and many Bahraini Shiites decried the verdict, Sunni government supporters applauded it as justice brought to bear on murderers, underscoring the social divisions that are deepening and widening as the government crackdown drags on.

“I think the government has to take a large share of the blame for stirring these divisions up, but the concern is once they stir these things up, it's not easy to control them, it's not easy to put them back in the box,” says Ms. Kinninmont. “It may be that they have created something that they can't control. And it's very unclear if there is any strategy beyond simply punishing people.”

The death penalty is rare in Bahrain, with only a handful of cases in the last decades. In 2006, another Shiite protester was executed after being convicted of killing a police officer.

Defendants allegedly tortured

The head of Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority on Wednesday rebuffed criticism of the trial, saying it was attended by Arab and European human rights organizations and the ruling can be appealed, unlike in more restrictive countries.

"The defendants confessed that they deliberately targeted the security men in order to cause casualties, [take] lives, terrorize people, and exact revenge,” said Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, according to the state news agency. “During the trials, the defendants had their full rights under the laws and international covenants."

Mohammed Al Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, says the government’s interrogations and investigations of the defendants took place without their lawyers present, and that they did not have access to their lawyers until the two-week trial began.

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