MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahrain said Tuesday that three police officers on trial over killing demonstrators during street protests last year will now face murder charges and could face the death penalty.
The defendants, who were not named, include a police lieutenant, according to a statement by the Gulf nation's Information Affairs Authority. They were originally being tried on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
They are on trial for three separate shooting deaths that occurred in February and March 2011.
Conviction on manslaughter charges carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, but a murder conviction can result in life imprisonment or the death penalty, according to the IAA statement.
"If convicted of murder, employees of the Ministry of Interior are likely to receive the toughest penalties allowed by law," it added.
A report issued in November by a commission authorized by Bahrain's Sunni Muslim rulers cited medical reports that found all three victims were shot from close range. The report determined that their deaths were the result of excessive force by police.
The officers' trial resumes July 10.
In a related development, authorities said they have begun the process of giving compensation to families of people killed during the uprising.
At least 50 people have been killed since the violence began in the strategic island nation, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Many were protesters, but security forces were also among the dead.
A total of $2.6 million is being paid out to the families of 17 victims initially, according to an IAA statement. It quoted Judge Khalid Hassan Ajaji, a Justice Ministry official, who said the office handling the claims began its work in March.
The statement did not name the recipients.
However, three defense lawyers representing several victims among opposition protesters said they were unaware of any payments being made so far.
"Nothing has been paid to any victim, according to my information," defense lawyer Mohsen al-Alawi told The Associated Press. "The government said it will pay the victims, but nothing has been paid."
Two other lawyers, Abdullah al-Shamlawi and Jalila al-Sayed, also said they did not know of any payments being made.
Last September, Bahrain's king ordered the creation of a fund to compensate victims of the Arab Spring-inspired unrest that broke out in February 2011.
The country has experienced near daily protests for 16 months in an uprising by the kingdom's Shiite majority seeking greater political rights from the Western-backed Sunni monarchy.