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.
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.
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.
Mr. Maskati says he has talked to dozens of people released from detention in past weeks, and nearly all have said they were tortured, but are too afraid to speak publicly about it. At least four people have died in police custody in the last month with marks of abuse on their bodies.
The government says the use of military tribunals to try civilians is justified under the state of emergency, which was declared March 15 as Saudi troops and tanks rolled into the island-nation to help put down the uprising.
But a lawyer representing one of the defendants says that military tribunals are only legal under marshal law, not a state of emergency, although he unsuccessfully challenged the jurisdiction of the court.
“It’s difficult to say what we believe, frankly,” he says, requesting anonymity for his safety. "It’s very difficult to comment under these circumstances. But we believe the verdict is unfair and we are disappointed.”
'All of Bahrain is crying'
The pall of fear has fallen heavily on Bahrain in recent weeks, with many Bahrainis too afraid of retribution to talk to international media or give their names if they do. Rights groups say as many as 800 people have been detained since the protest movement began, and more than two dozen have been killed. One of those detained was Mohammed Al Tajer, a prominent defense lawyer who was representing one of the defendants.
Mr. Al Khalifa, the head of the Information Affairs Authority, said Wednesday that 312 detainees have been released since March 15, but that 62 crimes and 343 felonies were being transferred to courts. He said 23 doctors and 23 nurses would be charged with crimes next week. Healthcare professionals, particularly those who provided care to wounded protesters, have been targeted in the government crackdown.
The sister of one of the defendants told the Monitor that her young brother was a peaceful protester whose confession was fabricated and forced.
She says that in the few minutes her family was allowed to see him after each trial hearing, he told them that he was kept constantly blindfolded and did not know where he was being held. He refused to reveal more about his treatment because he did not want to worry them, says the sister, who asked to remain anonymous to protect both herself and her brother.
Today, after hearing his own death sentence, her brother tried to tell his mother not to worry, that he would appeal it. “But my mother was crying," she says. "I couldn’t stay because I didn’t want him to see me crying. All of Bahrain is crying.”
Such bitterness and resentment is building as the government persists in its campaign to crush all dissent. If the government does not relent, it could eventually push some Bahrainis into the arms of extremist groups who would use violence to overthrow the government, says Kinninmont.
“The greater worry is the resentment it's storing up for the future,” she says. “I think the opposition doesn't have a lot of options, but I think the anger that's being stored up will be expressed in some ways in the future.”