Bahrain’s upper parliamentary house has approved a measure that will allow civilians charged with “damaging public interest”, or very broadly defined terrorism offences, to be tried in military courts. Human rights activists claim the constitutional amendment effectively criminalises dissent.
Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said in a statement that the ruling would instigate “de facto martial law”.
Ahmed Benchemsi of Human Rights Watch disagreed, telling The World Weekly that martial law “is not what is happening in the country right now”. He pointed out that the military does not have extensive executive power, nor have any civilian laws been suspended.
Nonetheless, he added, groups like Human Rights Watch are concerned that the amendment will be used “against regime opponents who have no terrorist activities at all, just as a new way to suppress dissent”.
Speaking out of line is already risky, particularly for members of the kingdom’s Shia minority. The Shia-dominated opposition has been outlawed and many of its leaders are behind bars on terrorism charges. Last year, Bahrain’s spiritual Shia leader – Sheikh Issa Qassem – was stripped of his citizenship for allegedly colluding with Iran.
The country has been rocked by sporadic unrest since protests demanding that an elected government replace the monarchy in February 2011. On their sixth anniversary last month, demonstrations were put down with the help of Saudi Arabian troops.
Mr. Benchemsi said trials in Bahraini civilian courts were often unfair, especially those about “peaceful critics” of the regime. This latest move, he said, “will only increase and aggravate injustices.”