DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahraini lawmakers voted Tuesday to change the constitution to allow civilians to be tried in military courts, further empowering its security forces amid a crackdown on dissent at level unseen since its 2011 Arab Spring protests.
The decision by the 40-seat Council of Representatives, the elected lower house of the tiny Gulf nation's National Assembly, comes after a royal decree a month ago restored the power of its domestic spy service to make some arrests. Limiting the power of the National Security Agency was a key reform recommended after authorities put down the 2011 demonstrations.
Activists immediately decried the vote.
"The Bahraini king is effectively creating a police state with this de facto martial law," Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said in a statement.
Bahrain's government declined to comment as the bill had yet to be approved by the full National Assembly.
The bill revises a portion of Bahrain's constitution by removing limitations on who military courts can try. During the council's session, Brig. Gen. Yussef Rashid Flaifel, the head of the country's military courts, told lawmakers the change is needed as the nation is "fighting terrorism."
Lawmakers voted 31-1 to pass the constitutional amendment, with three members on hand not voting. The bill now heads to the 40-member Consultative Council, a body appointed by Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Bahrain, a predominantly Shiite island off the coast of Saudi Arabia that's ruled by a Sunni monarchy, is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and an under-construction British naval base. Government forces, with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, crushed the 2011 uprising by Shiites and others who sought political reform.
Independent news gathering on the island has grown more difficult since the government began a crackdown on dissent in April. Activists have been expelled or imprisoned, and the main Shiite opposition group has been dismantled. Low-level unrest that's plagued Bahrain since the protests has increased, with Shiite militant groups claiming attacks on security forces.
In January, Bahrain executed three men found guilty of a deadly bomb attack on police. Activists allege that testimony used against the condemned men was obtained through torture.
Protesters meanwhile demonstrated against the death Monday of 22-year-old Abdullah al-Ajooz. Al-Ajooz had escaped from prison in June while serving a life sentence on charges including attempted murder, premediated murder and bomb making.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry said al-Ajooz "tried to escape" during his arrest and fell from a home, suffering injuries that caused his death. However, activists questioned that account as the home al-Ajooz fell from was only two stories tall.
The protests gave way to clashes with police that activists said wounded some youths.
Late Tuesday, Bahrain's Interior Ministry said it had arrested 20 people over several days as part of an anti-terrorism operation.
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