MANAMA (Reuters) - A Bahraini military court ordered the death penalty for four men on Thursday over the killing of two policemen in recent protests, state media said, a move that could increase sectarian strife in a close U.S. ally.
The ruling came amid heightened antagonism between Bahrain’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and its Sunni ruling family after the island kingdom crushed anti-government protests last month with military help from fellow Sunni-led Gulf Arab neighbours.
It was only the third time in more than three decades that a death sentence had been issued against citizens of Bahrain, a U.S. ally which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
One of the prior death penalty cases came in the mid-1990s, during the greatest political unrest Bahrain had seen before this year. A protester was put to death by firing squad for killing a policeman during that time.
Three other defendants in the current case got life sentences, state media said.
Rights groups and relatives of the condemned men, all Shi’ites, dismissed the proceedings as a farce.
“They were activists in their villages and we think they were targeted because of their activities,” said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. “This will deepen the gap between the ruling elite and the population.”
Lebanon’s Shi’ite group Hezbollah condemned the sentences, saying they were part of the “continuous crime committed by the regime in Bahrain against the people of Bahrain ... (who) are exposed to severe oppression because of their request for their legitimate rights.”
Bahrain’s state news agency said the verdicts could be appealed and defendants had “every judicial guarantee according to law and in keeping with human rights standards,” a statement disputed by relatives of the condemned men who attended the sentencing.
“Even the accusations contradicted each other,” said a relative of one of the men sentenced to death. He said there were discrepancies between statements by prosecutors and coroner reports issued at the time of the killings.
Rights group Amnesty International said Bahrain should not use the death penalty.
Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa, noted that the accused had been tried by a military court and could only appeal to a military court “raising great fears about the fairness of the entire process.”
At least 29 people have been killed since the protests started, all but six of them Shi’ites. The six included two foreigners — an Indian and a Bangladeshi — and four policemen.
The recent turmoil began with Shi’ite-led political protests in February demanding greater political liberties, a constitutional monarchy and an end to sectarian discrimination. A few Shi’ite groups called for the abolition of the monarchy.
Bahraini Shi’ites say the ruling family systematically denies them equal access to employment and land.
Bahrain, blaming the protests on regional powers including Shi’ite neighbour Iran, declared martial law and called in troops from Sunni-led Gulf neighbours to back its forces.
Earlier this week it expelled an Iranian diplomat it said was part of a spy ring based in Kuwait, which in March sentenced two Iranians and one Kuwaiti citizen to death for espionage.
Bahrain’s crackdown signalled the end of a tentative experiment with political liberalisation that began in 2000 and saw the end of security courts used to prosecute dissidents in the 1990s, one analyst said.
“It’s clear hardliners in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are moving to deliver a fatal blow to Bahrain’s political opposition,” said Toby Jones, a historian of the Gulf at Rutgers University. “They see it as an opportunity to crush what has been a nagging presence for the last decade.”
Government officials have said that four policemen were killed during the recent protests, at least three of them run over by cars around March 16.
Since then, Bahrain’s security forces have detained hundreds of people, at least three of whom have died in custody.
Bahrain says it has taken steps only against those who committed crimes during the unrest. The state news agency on Wednesday said 312 people detained under martial law had been released and about 400 others referred for prosecution.
Separately, it said classes at Bahrain University — site of clashes between Shi’ite and Sunni students last month — would not resume before the end of an investigation into a “broad scale terrorist, saboteur plot” behind that incident.
Thursday’s verdicts were the first to emerge from prosecutions related to the protests and their aftermath. Relatives of the condemned men who attended the sentencing said there was no indication of when sentences might be carried out.