Bahrain's parliament on Sunday approved a constitutional change allowing military courts to try civilians, the kingdom's latest rollback on reforms made after its 2011 Arab Spring protests that likely will stoke an ongoing government crackdown on dissent.
Activists warn the amendment will allow an undeclared state of martial law on the island near Saudi Arabia that's home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet. Loyalists of Bahrain's rulers call the change necessary to fight terrorism as the persistent low-level unrest that followed the 2011 demonstrations has escalated recently in tandem with the crackdown.
The island's 40-member Consultative Council, the upper house of the Bahraini parliament appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, voted for the measure Sunday. Their approval came less than two weeks after the 40-seat Council of Representatives, the parliament's elected lower house, passed it with little opposition.
The bill revises a portion of Bahrain's constitution by removing limitations on who military courts can try.
Bahrain is a predominantly Shia island ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Government forces, with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, crushed the 2011 uprising by Shia and others who sought more political power.
In the wake of the protests, military courts tried hundreds of defendants. A government-appointed investigation after the protests criticized the use of the courts, saying they were employed "to punish those in the opposition" and raised "a number of concerns about their conformity with international human rights law."
"This came from the Bahraini king and for him to sign off on this amendment means that he is personally approving the new repressive measure and all the consequences it will have," Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said in a statement. "The responsibility for this de facto martial law lies at his feet."
Bahrain's government did not respond to a request for comment about the constitutional change. During the council's session Sunday, Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa told lawmakers the amendment was necessary as military judges are "best placed" to deal with "irregular warfare."
"If militias and armed groups are committing terrorist acts targeting innocent lives and property, as well as receiving elements of combat training, we must confront them … and stop their threats to peace and security," he said.
This is not the first step away from reforms Bahrain made after the protests. Already, the kingdom has restored the power of its feared domestic spy service to make some arrests.
Since the beginning of a government crackdown in April, activists have been imprisoned or forced into exile. Bahrain's main Shiite opposition group has been dismantled. Independent news gathering on the island also has grown more difficult.
Meanwhile, a series of attacks, including a January prison break, have targeted the island. Shiite militant groups have claimed some of the assaults. Bahrain on Saturday accused Iran's Revolutionary Guard of training and arming some militants.
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.
The executions and increasing crackdown have been linked by activists to the end of US President Barack Obama's administration and the start of Donald Trump's.
Under Obama, the US held off on finalizing a multi-billion-dollar deal for F-16 fighter jets amid American concerns about human rights issues in Bahrain. Since Trump took office, there has been growing speculation in Washington that the deal might be pushed through.
"In a year where the new Trump administration is dismissing human rights from its foreign policy to Bahrain and the Gulf and preparing to sell arms without conditions, this is a dangerous sign of things to come," Husain Abdulla, the executive director of the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, said in a statement.