x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Villagers not guilty of policeman's murder

Bahrain's high criminal court praised for judicial independence after acquitting villagers accused of killing a policeman during a riot.

MANAMA // In a surprise verdict yesterday, a Bahraini court acquitted 19 men accused of killing a policeman last year in the Shiite village of Karzakan, after ruling the government case against them lacked incriminating evidence. The men were accused of killing a Pakistani policeman during clashes in the village in April 2008 after they allegedly threw Molotov cocktails at the unmarked police car he was in as he patrolled the streets.

Opposition groups, who see the accused as victims of government persecution and the rioting as a result of official discrimination against Bahrain's Shiite community, hailed the verdict. The Bahraini government brought murder charges and attempted murder charges - because two other officers survived - against the men based on confessions it obtained from them. The men alleged the statements were made under torture.

The high criminal court, in its ruling, said it did not find the testimony of the two surviving officers "comforting enough" and that the testimonies of witnesses produced by the defence were more solid. The court also based its judgment on the medical examiner's testimony, which found that the death of the policeman, Majid Asghar Baksh, 24, to be the result of a head injury sustained as a result of a fall and not the Molotov cocktail attack.

The case is one of two clash-related deaths being reviewed by courts. In the other, 10 men stand accused of taking part in an attack in March of this year in Maamer, a Shiite village, on a civilian pickup vehicle during clashes that resulted in the death of a 58-year-old Pakistani man. It is believed the men thought the pickup was a private security vehicle. Mohammed al Tajer, the head of the 15-lawyer defence team for the Karzakan detainees, described the ruling as one that proves the independence of the Bahraini judiciary, despite his earlier criticisms that the court was biased.

"We were confident that we will win the case because it is impossible to have 19 people [in the middle of a riot] come to an agreement to kill one person and because we had brought forward enough evidence to disprove the government allegations." He said he was hopeful that the court on November 17 would also find the 10 suspects from the Maamer case not guilty. The judgment came as a blow to the credibility of the security services training and investigational procedures, but human rights and political activists said the ruling proved the independence of the judiciary system.

Abduljaleel al Singace, a spokesman for the opposition Haaq Movement, described the decision as a wise one that helped the country steer clear of entering a "dark tunnel" of government repression. Opposition groups had warned of the "uncertain future" and possible political and social upheaval in the case of a harsh judgment, a warning that had been repeated since June as talks to mediate a settlement with the families of the two men killed failed and an April pardon did not materialise.

Two weeks ago, opposition groups in a joint statement called for the release of all the detainees, describing it as the "best path to maintain the stability and security of the country by moving it away from the security solutions approach which only generates violence and confrontation in which all lose". The statement also repeated the position taken by the opposition that both cases had major contradictions on the level of the evidence presented to the court and the indications that the detainees' statements taken during investigation were extracted under duress.

In April, Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, issued a pardon for 178 detainees and wanted men - including four key Shiite opposition figures - arrested between December 2007 and March of this year standing accused of security related charges, as part of an effort to reduce tensions with the Shiite community. The pardon was the result of secret negotiations led by the Shiite opposition group Al Wefaq, which has 17 members in parliament. The 29 suspects from Karzakan and Maamer were said to be included in the deal.

However, in June, Al Wefaq accused elements in the government of obstructing the final stages of a compensation agreement with the families that would have secured their release before the two cases resumed in courts. On Monday, Al Wefaq warned of a return to unrest if the two court cases continued, less than 24 hours before the court was expected to issue its verdict in the Karzakan case. mmahdi@thenational.ae