Days after the US designated Bahrain a human rights abuser, putting it in the company of North Korea and Zimbabwe, the small Gulf kingdom yesterday pushed on with six trials of political opponents and hauled in the wife of a jailed former member of parliament for hours of questioning.
Five of the trials were staged before a special military tribunal, which has handed out death sentences after rushed secret proceedings. The island's high court was the venue for the sixth, a highly controversial case in which four former editors were charged with fabricating reports in Al Wasat, at the time, Bahrain's sole independent newspaper.
The trial continues on July 3. If found guilty, the editors – one of whom is being tried in absentia – could face up to two years in jail or high fines. A US Embassy observer attended the trial, and media were allowed in.
Sunday's judicial hearings all stem from Bahrain's "Arab spring," a month of unrest on the island, whose Shiite Muslim majority chafes under a political system that concentrates political power in the hands of the Sunni Muslim minority regime.
Bahrain regrets US 'rush to judgment'
As part of a crackdown that began after the arrival of Saudi and other Arab troops in mid-March, the government has fired hundreds of Shiites, starting with the doctors and nurses who treated protesters injured when security forces started shooting at them, and put four dozen medics on trial.
Bahrain has arrested hundreds of other state employees, permitted widespread and systematic human rights abuses in its prisons, according to witness testimony, and jailed leading political critics, Sunni and Shiite alike. The government also destroyed dozens of long-standing Shiite mosques.
In Geneva on June 15, the US added Bahrain to its list of human rights abusers that the United Nations Human Rights Council should closely examine. Unlike most of the other countries on the US list – they include China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen – Bahrain is a formal ally of the US and home port for the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Bahrain responded to the designation by regretting the US "rush to judgment."
Details from the trials
The most political of Sunday's proceedings appeared to be the trial of Jawad Fairooz, an elected member of parliament who quit in February to protest the severity of the crackdown. He's been charged with inciting hatred for the current regime, spreading lies and malicious rumors, and organizing demonstrations. His lawyer wasn't permitted to deliver a full defense but was told to return on July 5, when he could make a final pleading and then hear the verdict.
Meanwhile, security authorities called in the wife of Mattar Ebrahim Mattar, the other jailed ex-lawmaker, for questioning. A doctor who was working in the main hospital where injured anti-government demonstrators were taken, his wife, Amal, was held for more than six hours, family members said.
The trial of the newspaper editors proceeded outwardly like a normal court case Sunday. During a hearing that lasted 30 minutes, Mansoor al Jamri, the former editor-in-chief of Al Wasat, told the court that he and three other editors had been tricked into publishing a series of fabricated articles after the paper came under attack and its staff had to disperse to their homes to publish print and electronic editions.
A set of dispatches arrived by email, describing a crackdown on protesters that had never occurred, and the newspaper published the false information unknowingly, he said. Jamri told the court that all the phony articles had been sent from a single server in Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the newspaper editors had been the victims of a deliberate set-up.
"We presented our case showing the nature and reality of our work and we were a force for moderation and reforms," Jamri later told McClatchy. "We could never be involved in anything unethical. Our mission was evident to all observers in that we advocated reforms, dialogue, and human rights."
(A McClatchy special correspondent in Bahrain contributed but cannot be named, due to fear of reprisal.)