Updated 6:31 am, Tuesday, May 15, 2018
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A Bahrain court on Tuesday revoked the citizenship of 115 people at a mass terrorism trial, the most to lose their nationality at any one time, amid a yearslong crackdown on all dissent in the island kingdom.
Bahrain’s Sunni-rule government increasingly has wielded denaturalization as a hammer to beat back dissent on the Shiite-majority island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.
The court decision Tuesday came as much of the Mideast focused on Israeli security forces killing 59 Palestinian protesters as the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem the day before. Like much of the crackdown, it has quietly escaped attention.
Bahrain’s Public Prosecution said the case involved a little-known militant group it identified as the “Zulfiqar Brigades,” whose mass arrests authorities previously announced in 2016. Zulfiqar is the name of the forked sword of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad who is revered by Shiites.
Prosecutors accused defendants of building and detonating bombs, receiving weapons training and plotting to kill police officers. Prosecutors also alleged defendants received training and support from Iran and its hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
Bahrain long has accused Iran of stoking dissent in the country, something Tehran just as long has denied.
A statement from prosecutors said 53 defendants received life sentences, while dozens of others faced prison time. It said 23 defendants were acquitted.
Bahraini officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment for more information. Activists said the sentencing raised the number of those who have lost their citizenship since the 2012 to over 700.
“This outrageously harsh sentence is setting a new level of injustice in Bahrain,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. “Rendering people stateless in a mass trial is a clear violation of international law.”
Bahrain, a nation only some 760 square kilometers (290 square miles) in size, is home to some 1.4 million people. About half are Bahraini citizens, the majority of them Shiite. The island is also home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and a new British naval base.
The island has been ruled since the 1780s by the Sunni Al Khalifa family. King Hamad, who took the throne in 1999, initially took steps to move the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.
However, the island’s Shiite majority accused the government of treating them like second-class citizens. They joined pro-democracy activists in demanding more political freedoms in 2011, as Arab Spring protests swept the wider Middle East. Saudi and Emirati troops ultimately helped violently put down the demonstrations.
Bahrain promised change after the protests. But since April 2016, Bahrain has engaged in a new crackdown on dissent, overturning reforms that blocked civilians from being tried in military courts. It has shut down political parties, arrested political activists and forced others into exile.
The U.S. previously pushed back against Bahrain on human rights matters, using its influence as the island’s defense guarantor with over 7,000 U.S. troops attached to a sprawling base called the Naval Support Activity in Manama.
However, that’s changed with President Trump. His administration approved a multibillion-dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights conditions imposed by the State Department under President Barack Obama.
Amid the crackdown, local Shiite militant groups have carried out several attacks on security forces. Independent news gathering in Bahrain also has grown more difficult, with the government refusing to accredit two Associated Press reporters and others while shutting down a prominent local independent newspaper.