Bahrain says civilian courts now dealing with most protest cases
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain said on Sunday almost all the verdicts issued by military courts against people involved in a pro-democracy protest movement crushed by the Gulf Arab state last year were now being handled by civilian courts.
The statement, which also said 11 people jailed by military courts would be freed, appeared designed to show Bahrain had met the recommendations of legal experts commissioned by the country's king after an international outcry.
Bahrain is under pressure to heed the international experts, who said in November systematic torture had been used to extract confessions used in military trials of hundreds of Bahrainis, mainly from the majority Shi'ite community.
The government, led by the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty, survived the month-long protest movement, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as strong U.S. censure. But Washington has linked continued sales of security hardware to recommended reforms in policing, the judiciary and elsewhere.
Sayed Hadi al-Musawi, a senior official in the largest opposition party Wefaq, said the government was not acting in good faith.
"I am receiving lots of calls come from families asking about these cases, but everything is being kept vague," he said. "We don't know what's happening. If you want to say you are implementing recommendations, you need to be transparent."
A statement on state news agency BNA said 135 of 165 verdicts issued by military courts were in the process of being appealed and handled by civilian courts.
It said charges were dropped concerning six people involved in the 30 remaining cases, while four others would not serve any more time of their sentencing and charges would be "excluded" regarding one other defendant.
It gave no names or other details concerning the cases.
Mohsen Al Alawi, a lawyer who represents one defendant involved in the 30 cases, said it was not clear how many of the 11 defendants were still in jail or had been freed.
He said the fate of charges in the rest of the 30 cases was not clear.
"It's very opaque," he said, adding that in his view all military court verdicts should have been shelved in line with the commission's recommendations, rather than allowing the cases to continue in civilian courts.
Cases still pending after transfer to civilian courts include controversial trials of medics, teachers and 14 men jailed for leading the protests last year. One of those 14, rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who also has Danish nationality, has been on hunger strike for more than two weeks.
In December the public prosecutor dropped charges concerning freedom of speech and expression against 334 people, but any other charges against those defendants -- who were not named -- remained.
Wefaq's Musawi said at least 57 people were arrested this month around the time of the February 14 anniversary of the protests for trying or planning to return to the central traffic roundabout that formed the epicenter of the demonstrations and which is now closed and under heavy guard.
He said most of them had been released. Police had not given a figure for the number of those arrested. At least 120 people were wounded around February 14, including some by birdshot, an independent medic has said.
The country, caught up in a regional tussle for influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, remains in political stalemate with opposition parties holding protests for reforms and youths in Shi'ite areas clashing daily with police.
The violence has escalated in the past two months as youths hurl more petrol bombs and iron rods at riot police, while Wefaq says excessive force including heavy use of tear gas has caused 20 deaths since November.
The government disputes the causes of death and the attribution of some of them to the political violence. Security forces have not used live fire on protesters since the uprising.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Philippa Fletcher)