Manama: A Bahraini military court ordered the death penalty for four men Thursday over the killing of two policemen in recent protests, state media said, a move that could increase sectarian strife in a close U.S. ally.
The ruling came amid heightened antagonism between Bahrain`s Shi`ite Muslim majority and its Sunni ruling family after the island kingdom crushed anti-government protests last month with military help from fellow Sunni-led Gulf Arab neighbors.
It was only the third time in more than three decades that a death sentence had been issued against citizens of Bahrain, a U.S. ally which hosts the U.S. Navy`s Fifth Fleet.
One of the prior death penalty cases came in the mid-1990s, during the greatest political unrest Bahrain had seen before this year. A protester was put to death by firing squad for killing a policeman during that time.
Three other defendants in the current case got life sentences, state media said.
The United States, which critics accuse of not reacting forcefully enough to Bahrain`s political crackdown due to the tiny nation`s key strategic significance, issued a measured statement on the sentences.
"We strongly urge the government of Bahrain to follow due process in all cases and to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings," State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke-Fulton said in an e-mailed statement.
"Security measures will not resolve the challenges faced by Bahrain. We are also extremely troubled by reports of ongoing human rights abuses and violations of medical neutrality in Bahrain. These actions only exacerbate frictions in Bahraini society," she said.
Rights groups and relatives of the condemned men, all Shi`ites, dismissed the proceedings as a farce.
"They were activists in their villages and we think they were targeted because of their activities," said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "This will deepen the gap between the ruling elite and the population."
Lebanon`s Shi`ite group Hezbollah condemned the sentences, saying they were part of the "continuous crime committed by the regime in Bahrain against the people of Bahrain ... (who) are exposed to severe oppression because of their request for their legitimate rights."
Bahrain`s state news agency said the verdicts could be appealed and defendants had "every judicial guarantee according to law and in keeping with human rights standards," a statement disputed by relatives of the condemned men who attended the sentencing.
"Even the accusations contradicted each other," said a relative of one of the men sentenced to death. He said there were discrepancies between statements by prosecutors and coroner reports issued at the time of the killings.
Rights group Amnesty International said Bahrain should not use the death penalty.
Malcolm Smart, Amnesty`s Director for the Middle East and North Africa, noted that the accused had been tried by a military court and could only appeal to a military court "raising great fears about the fairness of the entire process."
At least 29 people have been killed since the protests started, all but six of them Shi`ites. The six included two foreigners -- an Indian and a Bangladeshi -- and four policemen.