Bahrain advances military trials for suspected militants

DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain's top government advisory body passed a constitutional amendment allowing suspected militants to be tried in military courts on Sunday, state news agency BNA reported, in a move criticized by activists.

Bahrain's Shura Council approved the amendment on the grounds that it would protect the Gulf island kingdom from militant attacks, and the justice minister said that those perpetrating attacks had forfeited access to civilian courts.

"Civilians cannot be tried militarily, but attackers who carry out acts of terrorism and armed violence will have their crimes face military justice," Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa was quoted as saying by BNA.

"Their combat deeds and armed egression put them in a place far removed from being civilians," he added.

The government executed three men in January convicted of a deadly 2014 bomb attack against police, and in February three fugitives were shot dead in a gun battle at sea while two security officers were killed in militant attacks.

Anger has mounted among Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslim majority since 2011 "Arab Spring" protests they launched were repressed with help from the Sunni-ruled kingdom's neighbors.

Bahrain accuses mainly Shi'ite Iran of stoking militancy in the kingdom, a strategic island that is home the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, a charge Tehran denies.

A British-based rights group said the move, when given final approval by Bahrain's king, would extend the purview of courts meant to try excesses by security forces to include civilians.

"Rather than trying offences committed by members of the armed and public security forces ... the new amendment opens the military court system to be used to protect the military by prosecuting outsiders," the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said in a statement.

(Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Noah Browning and Dominic Evans)