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IFEX defends member BCHR in light of free expression abuses

Anti-government protesters hold up pictures of Ali Isa Saqer, a Bahraini who died in police custody last week, during his funeral procession in Manama on 10 April
Anti-government protesters hold up pictures of Ali Isa Saqer, a Bahraini who died in police custody last week, during his funeral procession in Manama on 10 April

REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Last week, the president of Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Nabeel Rajab, made history as the first person prosecuted in the Arab world for a tweet, reports the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). He was accused of alerting readers through Twitter to "fabricated" pictures of the tortured body of Ali Isa Saqer, who Rajab alleged died at the hands of security forces in a Bahraini prison. While Bahrain is quickly turning into a police state, IFEX has expressed concern for Rajab and the sudden escalation of arrests and threats against other free expression advocates in Bahrain.

On 10 April, Bahrain's Interior Ministry issued a statement accusing Rajab of distributing fabricated images of Saqer and declared that he will be prosecuted by the military.

"Persecution for publishing images on Twitter demonstrates the increasing contempt by the Bahraini authorities towards freedom of expression and Internet freedom," said IFEX in an open statement defending BCHR.

Other BCHR members have also been targeted. On 9 April, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, former president of BCHR and director of Front Line, was beaten unconscious when 15 masked men raided his daughter Zainab's home. She was also beaten. Alkhawaja was dragged away bleeding and barefoot by authorities, along with two of his sons-in-law. The whereabouts of the three men remains unknown. Zainab has since started a hunger strike. (Follow her on Twitter at Angry Arabiya.)

Mohammad Al-Maskati, Alkhawaja's other son-in-law and the president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), has been documenting violations since the protests began and was also beaten at the house but not arrested.

With Saudi troops now in the country to support King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the attack on BCHR is emblematic of repression elsewhere in the tiny kingdom.

In the past couple of months, euphoric crowds filled Pearl Square in Manama, the capital, to listen to speeches calling for freedom and to celebrate the release of political prisoners. But with the pro-democracy movement showing no signs of abating, troops cleared the square on 16 March using tear gas and bullets and then bulldozed the area.

Detentions and pre-dawn raids have intensified even as mass demonstrations have virtually ceased. As many as 800 workers have been fired from the government and arms-length companies, apparently on the suspicion that they had attended the rallies. There have been reports of torture, beatings at checkpoints, even the forcible removal from hospitals of badly injured patients who appear to have sustained injuries from police.

Since pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in mid-February, BCHR counts more than 460 people who have been jailed or have gone missing. In the past 10 days alone, four have died in custody, says BCHR.

Last week, blogger Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri died under mysterious circumstances while in government custody. He had been charged with disseminating false news and inciting hatred. Government claims that al-Ashiri died from complications of sickle cell anaemia were vigorously denied by his family, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports.

The government has provided no registry of detainees. According to Human Rights Watch, detainees are held virtually incommunicado, with at most one or two brief phone calls allowed from places of detention to ask for fresh clothing. Families of the detainees say they are not permitted to see their relatives or lawyers. Those who have been freed told BYSHR that detainees have been tortured with electric shocks, beatings and sexual abuse.

A "state of national safety", in place since 15 March, gives the security forces the right to arrest anyone suspected of threatening "the safety of citizens", search houses at will without a warrant, censor the press, and dissolve any organisation, including legal political parties, deemed a danger to the state.

For instance, after a one-day shutdown, Mansoor al-Jamri, the editor of Bahrain's leading independent daily, "Al-Wasat", along with two other editors, was forced to quit last weekend to keep the paper open. He was accused of publishing false stories to incite Shiites to rise up against the government. Al-Jamri says the false stories were planted. Two Iraqi nationals who were appointed to replace him were then deported. "Al Wasat" has since emerged as a mouthpiece for the government, says Human Rights Watch.

Prominent Bahraini bloggers Mahmood al-Yousif and Mohammed al-Maskati were also temporarily detained, reports BCHR.

In a joint statement, BCHR, ANHRI and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), along with 15 other groups in the region, are calling for the suspension of Bahrain's membership in the UN Human Rights Council. "Failure to act in face of the gross and systematic human rights violations committed by the government of Bahrain is believed to highly undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the Council as a whole," they said.

They also point to the "complicity and lack of political will" from international actors, particularly the U.S. and EU. The Obama administration, which considers Bahrain a crucial ally, has issued tempered criticisms of the crackdown but has not pressed for a change in government. Bahrain hosts the United States Navy's Fifth Fleet, and its monarchy is strongly backed by Saudi Arabia, reports Human Rights Watch.

For real-time updates on developments in Bahrain, follow the BCHR team on Twitter here.
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