Bahrain king paves way for military courts to try civilians

Bahrain king paves way for military courts to try civilians
Bahrain's king has approved a law allowing civilians to be tried in military courts, amid a major crackdown on dissent in the Gulf kingdom. Amnesty International has called the move "disastrous" and "unfair."

The constitutional amendment, approved by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on Monday, drops a clause limiting military trials to members of the armed forces or other security branches, AFP reported, citing Bahrain’s BNA news agency.

Although the law reportedly applies only to those accused of terrorism, the legislation does not specify what constitutes an act of terrorism, and Bahrain has previously charged peaceful protesters and activists with such offenses.

Ahead of the king’s approval, the amendment was passed by both the upper and lower houses of Bahrain's parliament last month.

Those loyal to Bahrain's Sunni monarchy say the new law is necessary to combat terrorism. Rights groups including Amnesty International have slammed the move, however, describing it as a way to place the island under an undeclared state of martial law.

Amnesty said in a statement that the law "could be used to try, before a military court, any critic deemed to be a threat to Bahrain's national security or its 'independence, sovereignty or integrity’ including… peaceful activists."

“To avoid a lurch backwards to the dark days of martial law, the amendment should be repealed. And the Bahraini authorities must undertake a serious reform of their laws and of the justice system, in line with their obligations under international law," the organization said

The king's approval of the amendment is the latest in a series of measures, first implemented in April 2016, aimed at cracking down on political opponents in the Gulf kingdom. Since then activists have been imprisoned, with some forced into exile.

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In January, the country restored the power of its domestic intelligence agency, allowing it to make arrests. The country's main Shia opposition group has also been dismantled, and independent news gathering has become more difficult, according to AP.

Bahrain – a staunch US ally – is ruled by its Sunni monarchy, despite having a Shia majority. It has seen frequent protests since authorities thwarted Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations led by the Shia majority in 2011. Many of those involved, including high-profile activists and clerics, have been arrested and charged with acts of terrorism.