Yesterday the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, approved a constitutional amendment, which grants military courts the authority to try civilians. This has caused concerns among human rights activists.
The Sunni-ruled kingdom made the change in a bid to discourage dissent. The oil-rich nation has been plagued by increased protests since authorities cracked down on Shiite-led demonstrations that demand political reforms. These activists are often slapped with lengthy prison terms upon being accused of insulting the state, threatening national security or committing acts deemed terroristic. Amnesty International called the amendment a "disastrous move towards patently unfair" trials of civilians, warning that it could be used to try activists on "trumped-up charges."
Previously, military courts were mainly restricted to trying members of the armed forces or other security services. The court only tried civilians under extraordinary circumstances, like a state of emergency. In 2011, King Hamad declared a temporary three-month state of emergency and during that period civilians who engaged in protests were tried by special courts. This amendment gives the military courts autonomy to try any civilian accused of threatening state security.
The amendment was approved weeks ago by both the 40-seat upper house of parliament – appointed by the king – and the 40-seat elected lower house. However, it did not formally take effect until the king approved it on Monday.
Authorities have justified the move as necessary to fight what they say are Iran-linked anti-government cells that have targeted the state. The kingdom has, in the past six years, been known to strip dissidents of citizenship and ban foreign media.
Bahrain, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia, is considered an ally of the U.S. Reports emerged last week that President Donald Trump plans to lift restrictions on the sale of F-16 warplanes to the kingdom, in a move to strengthen ties to Manama. Trump's predecessor Barack Obama had set stricter conditions for the sale of the supersonic jets, over concerns about human rights abuses in Bahrain.