The government of Bahrain should suspend prosecution of civilians in military courts and set up an impartial commission to investigate torture allegations [press release], Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] said Tuesday. A Bahraini military court was set to try 14 prominent government opposition activists Thursday, along with several more activists who are in hiding or exile and will be tried in absentia. Among the charges leveled against them are that they set up "terror groups to topple the royal regime and change the constitution," insulted the army, incited hatred, disseminated false information and illegally took part in rallies without notifying the authorities, according to state-run Bahrain News Agency (BNA) [official website]. Amnesty International has publicly stated [press release] that it "believes many of the defendants are likely to be prisoners of conscience, detained simply for exercising their right to peacefully express their political views in public." Subsequent to their arrests, at least two of the defendants were reportedly maltreated [Reuters report] during their incommunicado detainment, including prominent human rights defender Abdelhadi al-Khawaja, who at a court appearance this week bore visible signs of ill-treatment and perhaps torture, according to HRW. The New York-based rights group said that they could see a number of injuries to al-Khawaja's face, and that he told them he had been beaten and suffered four facial fractures, including one to his jaw that reportedly required four hours of surgery and a six-day stay at the Bahrain Defence Force hospital. BNA has denied the reports as fabricated and politically-motivated. Meanwhile, HRW has asked that Bahraini authorities allow all defendants full access to lawyers, family members and necessary medical care. HRW also noted that Bahrain is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits torture, and that the country has ratified the Convention Against Torture.
Six of the opposition leaders were arrested [JURIST report] in March after the government, backed by foreign troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) [official website], violently dispersed protesters in the capital of Manana. Many protesters are calling for the removal of the royal family, which has been in power since the 18th century. Last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] urged the government of Bahrain to release detained activists [JURIST report] and exercise restraint against protesters. She expressed concern over the prosecution of medical professionals and the death sentences [JURIST report] handed to four activists last month. In April, human rights organizations including HRW and Doctors Without Borders (DWB) [advocacy website] criticized Bahrain [JURIST report] for rampant human rights abuses related to anti-government protests. This week Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa [official website] announced [JURIST report] that the three-month state of emergency [decree text, in Arabic] put in place [JURIST report] in mid-March in response to growing unrest, will be lifted two weeks early.