Bahrain king toughens anti-terrorism laws, rights groups cry foul

DUBAI Thu Aug 1, 2013 5:58am EDT

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa performs the Ardah, a national folk dance, during a ceremony organised by residents of Southern Governorate to show their support and loyalty, in Riffa, south of Manama, Bahrain, April 10, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa performs the Ardah, a national folk dance, during a ceremony organised by residents of Southern Governorate to show their support and loyalty, in Riffa, south of Manama, Bahrain, April 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain's King Hamad has toughened penalties in anti-terrorism laws before planned anti-government protests this month, approving proposals that have alarmed human rights groups which fear a crackdown on the demonstrations.

King Hamad, whose Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa dynasty has ruled the U.S.-allied Gulf state since 1783, has struggled to contain unrest that has persisted since the initial repression of pro-democracy protests by majority Shi'ite Muslims in early 2011.

Inspired by the mass demonstrations in Egypt that led to the army's overthrow of an Islamist president last month, a protest movement in Bahrain has called for rallies on August 14.

At an extraordinary session of parliament on Sunday, lawmakers agreed to recommendations including stripping those who commit or call for "terrorist crimes" of their nationality and preventing any protests in the capital Manama.

The king, whose island state is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, endorsed the proposals and on Wednesday issued two decrees enacting tougher laws, the Bahrain News Agency said.

The amendments prescribe a jail sentence of not less than 10 years on "anyone who carries out a bombing ... or attempts to carry out a bombing for terrorism purposes".

The penalty increases to death or life imprisonment if the bombing results in any death or injury, while anyone who puts or carries anything that resembles explosives or firecrackers in public places will receive prison terms.

"Perpetrators of dangerous terror crimes" can also have their citizenship revoked, the amendments say.

For those convicted of collecting money for a "terrorism purpose", the sentence is life imprisonment or a minimum 10-year sentence, in addition to a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 dinars ($265,300 to $1.33 million), the state news agency said.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights said it was concerned that the changes heralded a new crackdown by the authorities.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had also criticized the lawmakers' proposals for harsher anti-terrorism penalties, some of which the king has now made law.

Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday that Bahrain's government had spent the last two years cracking down on peaceful protests.

"Now it's planning a whole new set of draconian restrictions, effectively creating a new state of emergency, while peaceful protesters from the last round are sitting in prison with long sentences," he said in a statement.

HRW said revoking citizenship on the basis of unfair trial convictions violated Bahrainis' rights under international law.

Many Shi'ites complain of discrimination in jobs and have been calling for a constitutional monarchy. The government denies discriminating against Shi'ites.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights said on Wednesday authorities had arrested prominent blogger Mohamed Hassan.

($1 = 0.3770 Bahraini dinars)

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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