On Sunday, Bahrain’s Parliament approved a constitutional amendment that permits civilians to be tried in military courts. Defended by the government as necessary for cracking down on terrorism, the amendment represents a blatant attempt to suppress dissent in the Gulf monarchy. The impact of the amendment will be acute, according to the Bahraini Institute for Rights and Democracy, which described the move as “effectively creating a police state.”
The use of military courts to try civilians in Bahrain is not new. In the wake of the 2011 uprising, hundreds of protesters were brought before military courts after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency. Reviewing this practice later that year, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was appointed by the government, criticized the policy. According to The New York Times, the commission found that the courts “were employed ‘to punish those in the opposition’ and raised ‘a number of concerns about their conformity with international human rights law.’”
Bahrain is not the only country in the region to use military courts as a means to silence opposition. In Lebanon, military courts have broad jurisdiction to prosecute civilians for a variety of offenses. According to protesters and human rights groups, the military courts have been used as a tool of intimidation and retaliation against critics and activists. Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing trials in these courts of Lebanese protesters. The report found that “the structure of the military courts undermines the right to a fair trial, including the right to be tried before a competent, independent, and impartial court and the right to a public hearing.”
While there are no public statistics on the total number of civilians brought before the country’s military courts, the Union for Protection of Juveniles in Lebanon found that 355 children were tried in these courts in 2016 alone. Some defendants, including children, were subjected to torture, prevented from seeing a lawyer, and limited in their ability to appeal their often-arbitrary sentences.
In Egypt, military courts have been a central tool in silencing opposition to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, following the 2013 coup that brought him to power. HRW reports that between October 2014, when Sisi greatly expanded the power of military courts, and April 2016, these courts have tried 7,400 civilians. The military courts have employed mass trials, the largest of which included 327 defendants, and admitted confessions elicited under torture. So far, these court have handed down twenty-one death sentences.
In Jordan, the State Security Court prosecutes civilians for everything from terrorism to insulting the king. This military tribunal has been regularly used to crackdown on dissent and enforce Jordan’s strict limits on freedom of expression. The court has also tried peaceful protesters for “subverting the system of government,” “participation in unlawful gatherings,” and “vandalism of property,” according to HRW.
In the West Bank, military courts are the underpinning of the entire Israeli occupation. Following Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, Israeli authorities imposed military law over the territories and their Palestinian population. Since 1967, some 780,000 Palestinians have faced trial in Israel’s military court system. As in neighboring Arab states, rights violations, like lack of due process, lack of access to an attorney and torture, are common in these tribunals. In 2010, the conviction rate for Israel’s military courts was 99.74%. With army orders banning protests, membership in civil or political organizations, and production of political material, these courts function to suppress Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza have also employed military courts to try political rivals and protesters.
It is imperative that we recognize military courts used to try civilians for what they are: a mechanism to silence dissent. They are central to the strategy by which the region’s anti-democratic regimes maintain an unchallenged hold on power and represent a blatant violation of human rights and international law.