Bahrain arson verdict only stokes the fires

Youths' sentencing to lengthy prison terms for their involvement in a deadly 2009 riot could ripple into security and election crises, activists warn.

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MANAMA // The sentencing of seven youths to 25 years in prison for their roles in a riot-related arson that left a Pakistani immigrant worker dead could be more than Bahrain's fragile security situation can handle, politicians and rights activists warn. The ramifications of the ruling, handed down by a Bahraini court this week, could go beyond potential unrest and affect crucial economic and electoral prospects of the country, including participation levels in November polls.

On Monday, the High Criminal Court found the seven guilty of taking part in a Molotov cocktail attack in March 2009 on the pickup truck of Shaikh Mohammed Riaz in Maamer village. The court said its decision was based on confessions from the suspects and police testimony. Riaz, 58, who sustained severe burns after his vehicle was engulfed in flames as he was driving home, succumbed to his injuries and died in a hospital three weeks later. He was the father of five.

The killing came almost a year after a 27-year-old Pakistani policeman, Majid Asghar Ali, died in similar circumstances when the unmarked police patrol car he was in came under a Molotov cocktail attack in Karzakan. Nineteen youths were arrested in that incident. Monday's ruling sparked fighting in the courtroom that spilt into the streets and continued for the third straight day yesterday. A protester in his early 20s was injured after being shot by police Tuesday.

Protesters also burnt tyres and blocked roads leading out to some villages. Such fires are a frequent sight on weekends, particularly in poorer villages, but have grown in intensity, along with clashes with police this week. "We respect the Bahraini judicial system, but to have all seven charged and sentenced as the lead suspect gives the impression that this ruling was politically motivated and not judicially driven decision," Abdullah al Dirazi, secretary general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society, said.

"The tension seen on the streets is not in the best interest of Bahrain, especially since the country is on the verge of holding elections in the coming months," he said. Mr al Dirzai, who also sits on the board of directors of the National Human Rights Organisation, a government group, described the sentencing as harsh. He claimed that anti-riot police used excessive force against the suspects and some members of their families after the verdict was read.

The London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, which sent observers to attend the court hearings, claimed that "evidence used against the suspects was either non-existent or suspect in itself. In some cases, the police interrogators used torture and threats to extract confessions." Bahraini authorities have maintained that the allegations of torture are unfounded, a position the court supported when it pointed out that allegations of torture from the Maamer suspects were baseless and any injuries were self-inflicted.

"The sentence shows that it is not just the torture that was taking place in the 1990s that has revived, but the harsh sentences that accompanied it also," Ebrahim Sharif, the general secretary of the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Waad), said. During the 1980s and mid 1990s Bahrain witnessed political unrest with scores of people being detained. The government never acknowledged responsibility for the allegations, but in 1999 when Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, rose to power he introduced reforms that included more political rights and freedoms as well as release of all political detainees.

Mr Sharif criticised the anti-terrorism law, which parliament passed in 2005, after the judge used it as grounds for harsher sentences this week, even though, he claims, the prosecution did not prove that the attack was premeditated. He also claimed that the case, which was based on testimony obtained from the suspects, lacked grounds to be prosecuted. The case should have been thrown out, he asserts, because the suspects were not allowed to meet with their lawyers, there was a lack of physical evidence and the alleged confessions were obtained under suspect circumstances. At least six of the seven are active ground-level opposition members in their community, he said, surmising that the sentence was meant as a message to discourage and scare opposition supporters.

One opposition member of parliament, Jalal Fairooz, said the verdict was shocking, especially in light of all the questions surrounding the confessions. "The country is on the verge of holding its municipal and parliamentary elections and you need peace and calm to hold the elections ," said Mr Fairooz, who sits on the foreign affairs, defence and national security committee and is a member of the 17-member Al Wefaq bloc.

"The sentencing will have a major impact on the people's decision to participate in the elections and that will reflect negatively on the political and democratic reforms push." Mr Fairooz, who is vice chairman of the democracy and human-rights committee in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, added that the prospects of attracting future investments could be affected. "An atmosphere of stability is needed for the economy to prosper and if there is tension, investors will be reluctant to come in. We call for calm and non-escalation from both the government and the other sides because these things are not in the best interest of the country," he said.