High court acquits Shiites in high profile ethnic tensions case


Bahrain's High Criminal Court acquitted 19 Shiites accused of killing a policeman, prompting riotous celebrations around the island kingdom. The court case was being followed very closely by Shiites in Bahrain. The court's decision is the latest in a series of pardons and acquittals in the trials of Shiites for anti-government activities that had inflamed popular sentiment against the regime.


Crowds of relatives and supporters outside the courtroom erupted into cheers when the verdict was announced. The men had been charged with the slaying of Sunni Pakistan-born policeman Majid Asghar Ali in the village of Karzakkan, west of the capital, during a Shiite protest there in April 2008. The defense alleges that the evidence presented in the case was forged and during the trial produced a document saying the policeman had died months before the incident. The preceding weeks have seen nightly demonstrations by Shiite villagers over the case.


Last April, Bahrain's Sunni royal family released 225 of the arrested Shiites.


Analysis and forecast: decreasing risk

The latest judgement, although judicial in nature, reflects an overall attitude by the regime towards greater reconciliation between the country’s Shiite majority and the country’s Sunni rulers. The judgement has been praised by opposition Shiite groups Al Haaq, which refuses to participate in parliamentary elections, and the Al Wefaq. There have been gradual steps towards a rapprochement between the government and the Shiites in the past several months, and the latest judgement is a culmination of such efforts, and will undoubtedly improve relations between the Shiites and Sunnis in the country. Opposition groups have warned that a judgement to the contrary would lead to widespread violence.


It appears that the regime and opposition Shiite groups have opened a new chapter in their relations. However, further long-term steps need to be taken to ensure the peace lasts, including improving the conditions for the country’s Shiites as well as addressing their grievances, including mass-naturalizations of Sunni expatriates from other parts of the region.


The figure below shows the make-up of the population of Bahrian.