DUBAI: Bahrain’s parliament on Sunday approved a constitutional change allowing military courts to try civilians, the kingdom’s latest rollback on reforms made after its 2011 Arab Spring protests that will likely stoke an ongoing government crackdown on dissent.
Activists warn the amendment will allow an undeclared state of martial law on the island near Saudi Arabia that’s home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Loyalists of Bahrain’s rulers call the change necessary to fight terrorism as the persistent low-level unrest that followed the 2011 demonstrations has escalated recently in tandem with the crackdown.
The island’s 40-member Consultative Council, the upper house of the Bahraini parliament appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, voted for the measure on Sunday. Their approval came less than two weeks after the 40-seat Council of Representatives, the parliament’s elected lower house, passed it with little opposition.
The bill revises a portion of Bahrain’s constitution by removing limitations on who military courts can try.
“This came from the Bahraini king and for him to sign off on this amendment means that he is personally approving the new repressive measure and all the consequences it will have,” Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said in a statement. “The responsibility for this de facto martial law lies at his feet.”
Bahrain’s government did not respond to a request for comment about the constitutional change.
During the council’s session on Sunday, Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa told lawmakers the amendment was necessary as military judges are “best placed” to deal with “irregular warfare”. “If militias and armed groups are committing terrorist acts targeting innocent lives and property, as well as receiving elements of combat training, we must confront them ... and stop their threats to peace and security,” he said.
This is not the first step away from reforms Bahrain made after the protests. Already, the kingdom has restored the power of its feared domestic spy service to make some arrests.
Since the beginning of a government crackdown in April, activists have been imprisoned or forced into exile. Bahrain’s main Shia opposition group has been dismantled. Independent news gathering on the island also has grown more difficult.
Meanwhile, a series of attacks, including a January prison break, have targeted the island. Shia militant groups have claimed some of the assaults. Bahrain on Saturday accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of training and arming some militants.
“In a year where the new Trump administration is dismissing human rights from its foreign policy to Bahrain and the Gulf and preparing to sell arms without conditions, this is a dangerous sign of things to come,” Husain Abdulla, the executive director of the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, said in a statement.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2017