Bahrain’s king reforms the Constitution: military tribunals for civilians. Criticism of activists

The government says the measure concerns persons involved in terrorism. Activists and human rights organizations warn: "vague" measure can be used to suppress critical voices and dissent. Reduced sentence for Shiite opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman.

Manama (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Bahrain's King Hamad yesterday ratified an amendment to the Constitution which empowers military courts to try civilians. Government sources said that the decision concerns only persons involved in terrorist cases. However, activists and human rights organizations warn that the measure is "very vague" and can be used to suppress any critical voice and internal dissent.

The last time the military court tried civilians dates back to 2011, during the three months that a state of emergency remained in effect , declared in response to the protests of the population, during the "Arab spring"; a spontaneous movement of citizens demanding more rights and democracy, violently suppressed by the authorities of the kingdom with the help of Saudi Arabia.

At that time, about 300 people were tried for “crimes of a political "nature".  During the hearings there were complaints of "gross" violation of the rights of the accused, including the admission of "confessions of guilt" obtained by use of torture.

Before the reform, the Constitution stipulated that the use of military courts were reserved exclusively to crimes committed "by members of the Armed Forces of Bahrain, the National Guard and the Security Forces", until the declaration of the court martial.

The text now states that "the military judiciary should be regulated by law", which should outline "jurisdiction and competence" in relation to these powers. According to the Ministry of Justice, the military court "will not have the authority to send civilians to trial." However, anyone involved "in acts of terrorism or violent crimes" will be prosecuted by judges in uniform because their actions will be considered "armed assaults."

A vague definition, and that is open to different interpretations: activists warn that this reform is a "disaster" for the future of justice in the country. "We are in a context - warns an international NGO - in which the government uses the courts to repress all forms of opposition, at the expense of human rights."

Also yesterday, the High Court reduced the prison sentence of the main Shiite Muslim opposition leader. Sheikh Ali Salman – leader of the now dissolved Wefaq Party - will have to serve four years, instead of the nine, for trying to "overthrow the political system" through the use of force. Now the charges have become hate speech, disobedience and insulting public institutions.

Bahrain is a Gulf monarchy ruled by a Sunni dynasty in a country where the majority of the population (at least 60-70%) is Shia and want constitutional changes and social and economic rights. In 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, riots broke out that the king of Bahrain – a US ally supported by Riyadh – put down with Saudi military aid.

Last year, authorities arrested and sentenced Shia activists and religious leaders and suspended the activities of Al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition group, on charges of terrorism, extremism and violence as well as ties to a foreign power (i.e. Iran).