Bahrain Parliament's Approval of Military Trials For Civilians 'Disaster For Human Rights'

Bahrain trial
A Bahraini lawyer, S Mohsin Al-Alawi (R) holds the defence case file for Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Shiite opposition movement Al-Wefaq, as he leaves the court after the sentence hearing on June 16, 2015, in Manama. On Sunday, Bahrain's parliament approved military trials for civilians. Mohammed al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty

Rights groups condemned on Monday the decision of the Bahraini Parliament a day earlier to approve military trials for civilians as a "disaster for human rights" in the Gulf Kingdom.

Lawmakers in the country's 40-member Consultative Council passed a change to the constitution that would now permit military courts to try civilians, citing the need to combat extremism and unrest in the country.

Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa told parliament the change was essential as military judges were "best placed" to oversee trials regarding "irregular warfare," the Associated Press reported.

Anti-government protests erupted in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring uprising, with Shiites calling for greater representation. But the Bahraini military repressed the rallies with the support of Gulf allies, refusing to succumb to popular unrest like other Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Bahrain's military courts tried hundreds of opposition suspects following the protests. Authorities have continued their crackdown on dissent in the country, which is majority Shia, but ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

Read more: Another bad week for human rights in Bahrain

"This constitutional amendment is a disaster for the future of human rights in Bahrain, which is already on the brink of crisis," Ariel Plotkin, Amnesty International's Bahrain researcher, says.

"It will allow civilians to be tried before a military court—something Amnesty International opposes in all circumstances but in particular in Bahrain," she adds. "Military courts in 2011 sentenced scores of peaceful opposition and human rights activists, nurses, doctors and teachers to prison simply for leading or participating in the Bahrain uprising—in sham, grossly unfair trials where 'confessions' obtained from torture were used."

Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, tells Newsweek the amendment means anyone from "human rights defenders, a doctor, anyone who has expressed dissent" can now be tried in a military court.

"It will be used as a speedy way of finalizing their political calculations. The King is turning his back on his every commitment to reform that he claimed he was going to implement," he says. "It is effectively turning the country into what I would call an undeclared state of martial law."

Last year, Bahrain dissolved the largest opposition group in the country, known as al-Wefaq. It has also detained dissident Nabeel Rajab for TV interviews and tweets about the political situation in Bahrain, keeping him in custody and delaying his verdict in what rights groups say is an attempt to "harass" voices of democracy. In January, it also executed three men accused of a bomb attack on police in March 2014, the first in six years.

Bahraini authorities are now targeting the main opposition group in the country, the secular National Democratic Action Society, also known as Waad, on the basis that it threatened to undermine the country's stability, according to Bahrain's state news agency BNA.

The Justice Ministry said the group had committed "serious violations targeting the principle of respecting the rule of law, supporting terrorism and sanctioning violence by glorifying people convicted for terrorism cases."