MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain should drop cases against doctors and leaders of last year’s protest movement because of unfair and politically motivated trials, and Western countries should suspend military sales, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.
The New York-based group said the trials in civilian courts were as flawed as they were when they began in military courts last year after the Gulf Arab state imposed martial law to crush pro-democracy protests led by majority Shi’ite Muslims.
The government said in October that all the military cases, which had provoked international criticism amid allegations of torture, would be transferred to ordinary courts.
“Grossly unfair military and civilian trials have been a core element in Bahrain’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
“The government should remedy the hundreds of unfair convictions of the past year by dropping the cases against everyone convicted on politically motivated charges and by adopting effective measures to end torture in detention.”
The report, “No Justice in Bahrain: Unfair Trials in Military and Civilian Courts,” singled out two major cases: one of 20 doctors convicted on charges including incitement to overthrow the government and attempting to occupy a hospital and 14 politicians and rights activists jailed for leading protests.
Among the 14, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who also holds Danish nationality, has been on hunger strike for more than two weeks.
The government has said it is reforming police and judicial procedures in response to recommendations in a report by a group of international legal experts in November that found systematic torture had been used during martial law. Of the 35 people who died during the unrest, four were in police custody.
The government said on Tuesday that a special prosecution unit had been set up to “determining accountability for the events of last year” and an independent ombudsman to investigate claims against the police.
Opposition parties say senior officials found responsible for abuses should face justice.
Officials were not available for comment on the HRW report.
HRW also said Western countries should suspend all military and security-related sales and assistance to Bahrain until the government fully addresses the violations.
The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is Based in Bahrain, and Britain, a former colonial power, criticized the government for its handling of protests that followed revolts in Egypt and Tunisia but stood behind the ruling Al Khalifa family.
Washington has released a small amount of security equipment but held off on other sales pending reforms. Riot police this month fielded new armored vehicles in a large policing effort to lock down protesters in their villages and prevent a critical mass forming on the February 14 anniversary of the movement.
The island of 1.2 million remains bitterly divided one year on. Opposition groups want parliament to have full legislative powers and form governments, but pro-government Sunni groups fear that Shi’ites have an agenda linked to Shi’ite power Iran.
Clashes between youths and riot police continue daily in Shi’ite districts.
Writing by Andrew Hammond