DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A special military tribunal in Bahrain Sunday upheld death sentences against two Shiites for the alleged murder of two policemen at the start of the government's harsh crackdown in March, touching off demonstrations in at least 10 Shiite villages on the small Gulf island.
It was the latest rebuff to President Barack Obama's call Thursday for the ruling Sunni government to end the use of brute force and mass arrests of its political critics, and came one day after a tear gas attack on the home of Nabeel Rajab, the most outspoken independent human rights advocate.
At the same time, in a conciliatory gesture, the government Sunday released a 26-year-old columnist and blogger for the now-suppressed Al Wasat daily. Haider Mohamed al Noaimi, subject of a McClatchy article two weeks ago, was released after about a month in jail.
"I cannot believe I am free," he told McClatchy Sunday night by telephone from Bahrain, adding, "I wish everybody else was."
Noaimi, who's 26, was widely known as a voice of moderation in the standoff between the Sunni-led minority government, which invited in troops from Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the majority Shiite population. True to his reputation, his first words to the outside world were conciliatory.
"The biggest challenge for Bahrain is to go back to the way it was," he said., "when we were all together, and when there were no problems between Sunnis and Shiites." His wife Sajeda said Noaimi had lost a lot of weight in prison, and returned with long hair and a beard.
She noted marks on his hands indicating he had been beaten but said he was in high spirits.
The secret trial for the mid-March deaths of two policemen has been widely criticized for the apparent lack of due process. The defendants were accused of driving vehicles into two policemen and then mutilating the bodies by driving over them again and again.
A video purporting to show the killing was played on state-controlled television while the trial was still under way, and was used as prime evidence during the proceedings against the defendants, Rajab said.
One of those accused died in detention, although his confession, likely to have been obtained under extreme coercion, was included in the official televised "documentary" on the case. But the demeanor of every defendant shown confessing on the program raised questions about whether anything they said was not under duress.
The trial moved at breakneck speed, with the proceedings opening April 17 and sentences issued April 28 -- death for four Shiites and life imprisonment for three others. On Sunday, the court commuted the death sentences against Qasim Hassan Mattar Ahmed and Saeed Abdul Jalil Saeed to life imprisonment.
The chief lawyer for the defendants, Mohammed al Tajir, was arrested the day before the trial began, and other lawyers couldn't meet their clients until the trial opened, giving them no time to prepare a defense, Bahraini human rights observers said.
Adding to the challenges for anyone trying to reconstruct the proceedings, the lawyers were warned not to talk to outsiders about the process, according to Rajab. Neither of two lawyers who took part in the proceedings would respond to requests from McClatchy Sunday for information on what happened in the trials.
One reason that demonstrations broke out Sunday -- and young men in the Shiite villages have been staging marches regularly for more than a month -- was a widespread belief that at least one of those sentenced to death was nowhere near the scene when the killing was said to have occurred, and was in no position to drive a vehicle.
Ali Abdullah Hasan al-Singace, who was sentenced to death by firing squad along with Abdul Aziz Abdullah Ibrahim Hussein, was very overweight and had one leg completely in a cast at the time, according to hospital records cited by several members of the opposition.
International human rights groups have pleaded with Bahrain's U.S.-allied government not to proceed with the executions, but now the only hope of the defendants appears to be a decision by King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa to commute the sentences.
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