DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain on Sunday carried out its first executions since an Arab Spring uprising rocked the country in 2011, putting to death three men found guilty of a deadly bomb attack on police.
The executions of the Shiite men drew swift condemnation from human rights groups and sparked intense protests by opponents of the Sunni-ruled government, who see the charges as politically motivated. Activists allege that testimony used against the condemned men was obtained through torture.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in several predominantly Shiite communities to protest the executions.
The rallies at times turned violent as youth hurled projectiles and petrol bombs while police responded with birdshot and tear gas, witnesses said. The sound of gunfire could be heard into the night. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Bahrain's public prosecution said the death sentences were carried out by firing squad. Photos shared by activists purporting to show the bodies of the men showed a tight grouping of multiple gunshot wounds to the heart.
The executions were the first in the U.S.-allied nation since 2010 and followed a spike in protests in solidarity with the convicted men.
Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace were found guilty in 2015 of killing two Bahraini policemen and an Emirati officer deployed to bolster the country's security forces in a bomb attack the previous year. A court upheld their death sentences last Monday.
Bahrain is a tiny island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the waters around the Arabian Peninsula and is the naval counterweight to nearby Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Government forces crushed the 2011 uprising with help from allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but the country continues to face low-level unrest led by a majority Shiite population that feels marginalized by the Sunni monarchy.
Bahrain also maintains close ties to Britain, which is building a naval base of its own in the country. Over the past two and a half months, Prince Charles, Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have all paid visits to the island.
Johnson made a point of underscoring Britain's opposition to the death penalty hours after the sentences were carried out.
"The Bahraini authorities are fully aware of our position and I have raised the issue with the Bahraini government," he said in a statement.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets Saturday in solidarity with the condemned men as rumors spread that their executions were imminent.
Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher who monitors Bahrain for Human Rights Watch, called the executions inflammatory and unjust as he urged the kingdom's allies to "publicly and unequivocally condemn these killings." Amnesty International deputy director Samah Hadid called the executions "a deeply regressive step."
Protests and clashes continued Sunday despite a heavy presence of riot police deployed in predominantly Shiite areas. Witnesses said shops were shuttered in Daih, where the 2014 bombing happened. Garbage bins were seen overturned and set alight in the streets.
One police officer was wounded when several people shot at a police patrol in Bani Jamra, west of the capital Manama, the Interior Ministry said. It gave no further details.
The Ashtar Brigade, a Shiite militant group that claimed the 2014 police attack and a number of other bombings in Bahrain, took responsibility for the attack on the police officer on social media. The Associated Press could not immediately verify the post, though it came in a forum often used by the group.
Iran, which supported the 2011 uprising but denies any role in the violence, condemned the executions.
"The lack of transparency in the unfair trial of the three Bahraini citizens was confirmed by the international community, human rights and all popular bodies all around the world," Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said in remarks carried by state-run media.
Lebanon's Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah also condemned the execution of the three men, calling it "a crime" and "extrajudicial killing" that would undermine any chance for a political solution in Bahrain.
The militant group, which has been critical of the Bahraini government's crackdown on the Shiite uprising, said international silence toward what takes place in Bahrain must be met with the "largest solidarity campaign."
Al-Samea and Mushaima alleged they were subjected to electric shocks, beatings, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and sexual assault while in custody, Amnesty International reported in 2015. Al-Singace's mother says her son was also tortured, according to British rights group Reprieve.
"It is nothing short of an outrage — and a disgraceful breach of international law — that Bahrain has gone ahead with these executions," Reprieve director Maya Foa said. "The death sentences handed to Ali, Sami and Abbas were based on 'confessions' extracted through torture, and the trial an utter sham."
Government officials did not respond to a request for comment Sunday on the torture allegations. Bahraini officials have previously said the government is opposed to any kind of mistreatment and has safeguards in place to prevent it.
Bahrain's last execution was of a Bangladeshi man in 2010. A number of death sentences have been issued since then.
The three put to death Sunday were the first who had held Bahraini citizenship executed since 1996, according to Reprieve, though they were technically stateless at the time of their deaths after being stripped of their citizenship when convicted.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.
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