The United States is expressing concern about the severity of life prison terms handed down Wednesday to Bahraini activists accused of plotting to overthrow the government of the Gulf kingdom in protests earlier this year. The human rights group Amnesty International meanwhile alleged that a “soft” U.S. approach to the case was a factor in the harsh verdict.
The Obama administration is criticizing the outcome of the trial in a Bahraini military court, but is in turn coming under criticism from a major human rights group for alleged “indifference” to the defendants’ fate.
A closely-watched trial of 21 Bahraini political activists, arrested for allegedly plotting the overthrow of the monarchy and colluding with foreign terrorists, ended with eight receiving life prison sentences and the rest lesser jail terms.
All but one of the defendants were Shiite Muslims who make up the majority of the population in the tiny Gulf state ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family.
Several of the accused were tried in absentia but seven of the eight defendants given life terms are in Bahraini custody.
Bahrain has been a key ally of Washington and hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet, though the Obama administration was critical of Bahrain’s tough tactics against the protests in February and March.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner expressed concern about the severity of the sentences and the fact that the civilians were tried in a military court. “As President Obama said in his May 19th speech, such steps are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens. We understand that these cases will now go through an appeals process. We continue to urge the Bahraini government to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings, conducted in full accordance with Bahrain’s international obligations, and to create the conditions for a meaningful, inclusive and credible dialogue," he said.
Bahrain’s King Hamad al-Khalifa has promised to open a national dialogue on political reform next month but trials are to continue, including a case against more than 30 doctors and nurses accused of supporting the protests.
Local and international human rights groups condemned Wednesday’s sentences among them Amnesty International, which called them “harsh, politically motivated and patently unfair.”
Amnesty’s Washington-based International Advocacy Director T. Kumar said the Obama administration, while championing human rights in other Middle Eastern counties, has been “half-hearted” about rights abuses in Bahrain.
He spoke to VOA in advance of a meeting with State Department officials on Bahrain. “United States policy is extremely disappointing. The way they reacted to abuses in the region is totally different from the way they react to abuses, what’s happening in Bahrain. We will claim that the sentences that were passed today is in part because of U.S. indifference, and soft approach to Bahraini authorities," he said.
Amnesty's Kumar said rather than engaging in “wishful thinking” about a Bahraini appeals process, the United States should demand the immediate and unconditional release of those sentenced Wednesday.
He said a wide majority of the more than 500 people detained in pro-reform demonstrations in Bahrain since February were peaceful protestors.
The United States has engaged in a high-level political dialogue with Bahrain including several visits by Assistant Secretary of State for Near eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.
Spokesman Toner said the State Department’s top human rights official, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, was in Bahrain last week.