Bahrain military tribunal conducts ex-lawmaker's trial without him

McClatchy NewspapersJune 21, 2011 

BAGHDAD — Bahrain's controversial military tribunal tried a jailed former member of the national parliament in absentia Tuesday, the latest lapse of due process in the multitude of court cases the government has brought against its critics.

Bahraini authorities offered no explanation for why Mattar Ebrahim Mattar, who's been in custody since May 2, wasn't in court. Bahrain's state news agency reported only that Mattar had "failed to show up." A family member whom McClatchy isn't naming to avoid possible government retribution said Mattar's defense attorney, Ahmad Jasim, pleaded with the court for a delay because his client wasn't present but was rebuffed.

The military judge said he'd announce the verdict July 5, the state news agency said.

Mattar's was one of seven cases that were rushed through the tribunal Tuesday, all stemming from the small Persian Gulf island's national revolt in February against the Sunni Muslim regime's near-monopoly on political power. Six cases were heard Sunday, five of them before the same tribunal. Almost all the defendants are Shiite Muslims. Shiites outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain by an estimated 4 to 1.

According to the official news agency, the state prosecutor called for the "most severe sentence" against Mattar, saying he had "compelling evidence" that Mattar had incited "hatred of the ruling system," deliberately spread "fabricated news," protested illegally and organized marches.

But Jasim said the entire procedure against Mattar was illegal. He noted that at the time Mattar was accused of breaking the law, he was a member of parliament, entitled to immunity. Jasim also said that Mattar had been interrogated in the absence of legal counsel despite his repeated pleas. Family members said Mattar had been severely mistreated while detained.

Mattar's wife, Amal, whom police called in for six hours of questioning Sunday, was told at first that Mattar wouldn't be tried Tuesday. She was allowed into the courtroom only when his lawyer arrived.

Jawad Fairooz, another of the 18 Shiite members of the 40-member parliament — along with Mattar — who quit in late February, was arrested at the same time as Mattar. He's also been denied the right to a full defense and is due to hear his verdict July 5. He's been charged with inciting hatred for the regime, spreading lies and malicious rumors, and organizing demonstrations.

The Obama administration declared Bahrain a human rights abuser last week — in the company of Belarus, China, North Korea and Zimbabwe — a sharp blow to the longtime U.S. ally that provides the home port to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa called a state of emergency in mid-March after security forces arrived from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help quell anti-government demonstrations. The state of emergency was suspended at the beginning of June, but the mood on the small island seems as tense as ever.

Bahrain's Ministry of Education launched an investigation into university students who may have joined the unrest in February and March. One institute, the Bahrain Polytechnic, which opened in 2008 and has 1,500 students, was ordered last week to expel 47 students for having taken part in demonstrations. Another 12 were suspended for one or two semesters, and five other students received warnings.

Besides the many trials — four dozen doctors and nurses are on trial on allegations that range from supporting the protests to killing patients — the government has fired hundreds of medics, teachers and other professionals, taken over the national news media and severely restricted access to the country to foreign reporters.

When primary and secondary schools closed for the summer, some teachers and principals were dismissed, according to family members.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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