x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Bahrain sentences four protesters to death

Bahrain sentenced four protesters to death yesterday for their roles in the killing of two policemen during anti-government demonstrations last month.

Four protesters were convicted and sentenced to death by a military court in Bahrain yesterday for the killing of two policemen during anti-government demonstrations last month, state media said.

Three other activists were sentenced to life in prison for their role in the policemen's deaths.

Bahrain's state news agency said the verdicts could be appealed and that defendants had "every judicial guarantee according to law and in keeping with human rights standards".

Bahrain's human rights groups blasted the verdict and said the trial, conducted in secrecy, had no legal credibility and was politically motivated.

"They were activists in their villages and we think they were targeted because of their activities," said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "This will deepen the gap between the ruling elite and the population." The seven men were charged with premeditated murder of government employees. In an earlier hearing this week, Bahrain state media said the military prosecutor presented evidence that showed the defendants killed the policemen "on purpose" by running them over with a car. Their lawyers denied the charges.

Foreign media was barred from the courtroom, but selected representatives from state-aligned media were allowed. Family members of the defendants also attended the trial.

A relative of one of the defendants sentenced to death, said there were no emotional outbursts in the courtroom when the verdicts were read.

"He was smiling when they said it, because he did not want us to cry," the relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment by the authorities and of jeopardising the appeal.

"Even the accusations contradicted each other," said another relative, who said there were discrepancies between statements by prosecutors and coroner reports issued at the time of the killings. The verdicts marked only the third time in more than three decades that Bahrain had issued a death sentence. One of the prior cases came in the mid-1990s, during the greatest unrest Bahrain had seen before this year.

Bahrain's king declared martial law on March 15 and invited a Gulf Cooperation Council force to help quell the predominantly Shiite protests after weeks of street marches and sit ins in Manama.

At least 29 people have been killed since the protests started in February, all but six of them Shiites. The six included two foreigners - an Indian and a Bangladeshi - and four policemen. At least three of the policemen were run over by cars around March 16, according to the government.

In its report on the verdicts, state-run Bahrain News Agency described the policemen's deaths as "one of the most gruesome murders in Bahrain". The website carried links to government-produced videos posted on YouTube, including clips claiming to show a policeman's body being kicked and run over. The videos also showed purported confessions of alleged accomplices describing the policemen's killings and testimonials from alleged relatives of one of the policemen and a taxi driver killed in the unrest.

The footage refers to demonstrators as "gangs of outlaws" and "beasts without mercy".

Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders and human rights activists have been detained since emergency rule was declared.

Among those detained are also dozens of Shiite professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, including a lawyer who was to defend some of the seven opposition supporters in the military court.

The attorney, Mohammed al Tajer, is one of Bahrain's most prominent human rights lawyers.

At least three people have died in custody since the crackdown began.

The turmoil began with Shiite-led political protests in February demanding greater political liberties, a constitutional monarchy and an end to sectarian discrimination. A few Shiite groups called for abolishing the monarchy.

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. Thursday's verdicts were the first to emerge from prosecutions related to the protests and their aftermath. Bahraini Shiites say the Sunni ruling family systematically denies them equal access to employment and land, and say the naturalisation of predominantly Sunni Muslim foreigners, including some who man the security forces, proves a policy of discrimination. Bahrain rarely uses capital punishment, and when it does it is usually applied to foreigners.

The country effectively had a decade-long moratorium on the death penalty until 2006, when three Bangladeshi citizens were put to death, according to Amnesty International.

Another Bangladeshi man, Jassim Abdulmanan, was executed last July after being convicted of premeditated murder.

Executions are typically by firing squad, according to the rights group.

* With reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse