10/23/2011

Al Jazeera: Two weeks in Bahrain's military courts

21 Oct 2011

The families of six of the hundreds of people given long jail sentences speak out about the "abuse of justice".


Teachers, professors, politicians, doctors, athletes, students and others have all appeared in Bahrain's military courts. In just two weeks, 208 people were sentenced or lost appeals, leading to a cumulative total of just less than 2,500 years in prison.
Many of those imprisoned took part in massive pro-democracy protests earlier this year. Others, families say, were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were targeted by virtue of their religious sect.
One lawyer, who represents dozens of the convicted and who asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera the total number of how many have stood in front of military courts is not clear - but he estimates at least 600. "Well over 1,000 people have been arrested since the crackdown began," he said.
In an attempt to quell the uprising, the island's rulers invited Saudi and other Gulf troops to Bahrain in March and called for a three-month state of emergency, or what it called the "National Safety Law".
With the emergency law, came the military trials of hundreds of people in "National Safety Courts". According to the lawyer, the courts were basically military courts, since both judge and general prosecutor were drawn from the military judicial system.
Death sentences were given out from trials that lasted less than two weeks. Many hearings lasted only a matter of minutes before verdicts were handed out. According to lawyers and defendants' families, the main form of evidence in most cases were the confessions of the accused.
"This is not necessarily wrong," said the lawyer. "But if there were claims of torture then these confessions should be obliterated and should not be accepted in a court of law."
"They intentionally bring them in front of the court after a period of time once the wounds are healed, so they won't appear in court," the lawyer said. "If [the court agrees to a] request [for the defendant] to be examined by a forensic doctor, [the court] delays the test until the scars are healed." Despite numerous claims of torture, no forensic doctor hired by the government has confirmed a defendant's claims.
A handful of defendants who are found innocent in the military courts are so just to make it seem somewhat fair, he continued. "It's pure luck."
October 6 was the final day of the military court hearings, when cases and appeals were to be transferred to regular civilian courts. However, prisoners' families and their legal teams are far from optimistic that the change of venue will allow for a fairer trial.
"There is no difference between military and civilian courts, [in both] the verdicts are political," the lawyer said. "There is someone upstairs who is telling them to do this."
The lawyer pointed out that, during the protests in February, the king pardoned dozens of people in the middle of their trial. However, the powers granted to the king only allow him to issue pardons once a case is complete.
"These courts are nothing but political tools," the lawyer said.
Below are brief testimonies made to Al Jazeera by family members (some of whom asked to remain anonymous) of people who have either been sentenced or lost appeals in the final weeks of Bahrain's military courts. All of the family members who spoke to Al Jazeera claimed their loved ones were tortured soon after their arrest and were held incommunicado for months.
The methods described by families (and by the imprisoned themselves) are consistent and signify systematic abuse and torture against the prisoners that has also been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups.