The Persian Gulf state of Bahrain — home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — on Thursday began the trial of 25 activists from the country's Shiite opposition who were arrested several months ago in a wide-ranging crackdown by the Sunni-dominated government.
The defendants are charged with 10 crimes, some carrying life imprisonment. But the most serious accusation — plotting a coup against the government — was dropped.
"Nobody could believe [the coup charge], inside Bahrain or out," Mohamed al-Tajer, head of the 16-attorney defense committee, said in an interview after the proceedings. "They are trying to make the case more respectable."
Mr. al-Tajer said that at the outset of the hearing in Manama, the capital, that he and the other attorneys demanded to meet with their clients alone. The request was granted for the first time, he said. He also said the judge promised to move the defendants to a different prison after several of them complained of severe torture.
The Bahraini government released a video Thursday saying none of the defendants "showed any signs of mistreatment" and that "only six had any injuries at all, which were minor injuries caused by handcuffs during their arrest."
Zahra al-Singace, daughter of defendant and longtime human rights activist Abduljalil al-Singace, said the statement was nonsense. "When we went to see him, he had lost [about 30 to 45 pounds], he had marks under his eye, a scar beside his ear. He had very bad knee pain. He lost hearing in his right ear. And they took away his crutches and his glasses."
Mr. al-Singace told the court Thursday that he and his co-defendants were "subjected to physical and mental torture [and] were placed in solitary confinement."
Like Ms. al-Singace and other family members, Jenan Al Oraibi — wife of defendant and blogger Ali Abdulemam — said she had no contact initially for weeks. Now, she said, "the visits last for 15 minutes, and they warn us right at the beginning that if we talk about anything related to political issues or anything in the newspapers, then we won't get to visit again."
The trial started five days after the first round of the country's parliamentary elections. More than 300,000 Bahrainis voted, largely along sectarian lines, again giving the main Shiite bloc the largest number of seats. But Shiites have long complained that gerrymandering prevents them from being competitive in a majority of districts even though they constitute an estimated 70 percent of the country's citizens. The Council of Representatives also must compete with a second legislative body whose members are appointed by the king, a Sunni.
The perceived unfairness has led many influential Shiites — including those in Mr. al-Singace's Haq movement — to boycott the political process. Others have taken to the streets.
"What's been happening in Bahrain lately, in the last few years, is burning of tires, Molotov cocktails at 'peaceful' demonstrations," Houda Nonoo, Bahrain's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview this month.
Ms. Nonoo said that during a drive through Bahrain last month, she witnessed rioters "throwing tires across the main highway."
"This is violence," she said. "If you have something to say, say it, but don't say it with violence. We're giving you a forum to talk."
But critics said the recent closure of hundreds of opposition websites and the charge of disseminating false information — a variant of which was leveled at seven defendants — has discredited Bahrain's claim to protect freedom of speech.
The Obama administration, which sees Bahrain as a bulwark against Iran's regional ambitions, has kept silent on the trial and the larger crackdown. In a visit to Bahrain this month, Janet Sanderson, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said that on the subject of human rights, "we are not here, frankly, to impose our views on others."
"I think what they are doing now is that they are helping their allies, making sure that everything that is for their benefit is OK, and not helping the people themselves," said Ms. al-Singace. "That's not what they taught us in school about America."
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