Bahrain yesterday stopped bringing anti-government protesters to trial at a special tribunal with military prosecutors, a lawyer said, ending a practice criticized as unfair by rights activists and the kingdom's Western allies.
The tribunal was set up in March when Bahrain's Sunni rulers imposed martial law to help quash protests by Shiites demanding political freedoms and greater rights. The trials of dozens of opposition figures, human rights activists and Shiite professionals continued even after the emergency laws were lifted earlier this month.
A lawyer for a doctor who is among 47 health professionals on trial after they treated injured protesters said the proceedings have been moved to civilian courts. The medical staff are charged with participating in an effort to topple Bahrain's monarchy.
A hearing in the case of 20 doctors set for Thursday was cancelled, the lawyer said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing clients in custody.
The decision to shift trials to civilian courts comes as Sunni rulers try to open reconciliation talks with the Shiite-led opposition. Washington has encouraged dialogue in Bahrain, home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, and had urged the monarchy to meet some of the opposition's demands.
In an apparent effort to draw opposition groups into the government-sponsored talks, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on Wednesday announced the creation of an independent commission that will investigate allegations that protesters' rights were violated during the deadly crackdown on anti-government unrest.
The king's appeal for dialogue, due to begin on Saturday, got a cool reception from opposition groups. The leaders of the biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, have not yet decided whether they will join the talks.
Reports by Bahrain's rights groups that another protester died on Thursday as a result of injuries he sustained during the unrest in March could further erode Wefaq's appetite for reconciliation talks with the monarchy.
The death of 30-year-old protester Majid Ahmed Mohammed brings to 32 the number of those killed since February when Bahrain's Shiites, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East, started a campaign to end the Sunni minority's hold on power. Four people have died in custody.
Bahrain's Health Ministry confirmed Mohammed's death in a brief statement, which said he died Thursday morning in a military hospital.
A US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, on Wednesday welcomed the king's announcement on the commission and called on all participants in the national dialogue to "engage constructively in an effort to produce reforms that will respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Bahraini people."
In his speech, the king said Bahrain is committed to reform and respecting human rights. But he accused the protesters of pushing the country into a "state of chaos" with street marches and sit-ins earlier this year.
He said the government will not interfere in the commission's probe into what he called the "unfortunate events" that took place in February and March. The fact-finding mission will be "completely independent and will consist of international experts," the monarch said, adding that the commission will report its findings by Oct. 30.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who has repeatedly spoken out about accusations of abuse by Bahraini authorities, welcomed the formation of the commission and called it a "major development in Bahrain" during a news conference in Geneva on Thursday.