MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A civilian court in Bahrain overturned death sentences Monday for two protesters convicted of murdering two policemen during a wave of anti-government demonstrations last year.
Their sentences had been handed down by a special security court set up under a period of emergency law last year as Bahrain's Sunni rulers sought to silence a Shiite-led campaign for greater civil and political rights. International rights groups had criticized Bahrain for trying protesters, opposition leaders and activists in the military-linked tribunal, which was later abolished.
By moving their case and others to civilian courts, the government appears to be following through on at least some of the recommendations from a panel of international investigators who accused Bahrain of rights abuses during the crackdown, including denying fair trials to protesters.
Two other high-profile cases were back in court Monday, including the retrial of doctors and other medical professionals who treated protesters injured in the crackdown.
The Shiite-led protest movement was ignited last February by the uprisings sweeping the Arab world. At least 40 people have died.
Bahrain's Sunni monarchy got help from Saudi Arabia in cracking down on the movement. Both nations fear that regional rival and Shiite power Iran is aiding the unrest.
Bahrain is a critical U.S. ally and is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Washington has taken a cautious line with authorities, urging Bahrain's leaders to open more dialogue with the opposition but avoiding too much public pressure.
The decision to overturn the two death sentences Monday was made by the Cassation Court, said Hassan Radhi, a lawyer for one of the defendants. The decision moves their case to the supreme court for an appeal.
In the earlier case against medical workers, more than 20 doctors and nurses had been convicted of participating in efforts to overthrow the ruling Al Khalifa family in the special security tribunal. They received prison sentences of five to 15 years.
The court set another hearing in their case for March 9.
In another case, five members of an alleged terror cell were arraigned Monday. They denied charges of working with a foreign country to overthrow the ruling dynasty.
Prosecutors claim they had contact with Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard and planned attacks against high-profile sites in the Gulf kingdom, including the Saudi Embassy and a causeway linking the island of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.
The five defendants were detained in November. Four were arrested in neighboring Qatar, and one was taken into custody in Bahrain.
Another hearing in the case is set for Jan. 25.
The accusations of their links to the Revolutionary Guard — which is closely tied to Iran's ruling clerics — had drawn parallels with U.S. claims last year that an elite unit of the Guard was involved in a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Iran has denied the American charges.