Bahrain 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 Shiite island ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Government forces, with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, crushed the 2011 uprising by Shiites 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 immediately respond to a request for comment about the constitutional change.
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.