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Defense lawyer detained after night raid

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Manama, April 16, 2011 - More than two dozen uniformed and plainclothes security officers, most of whom were masked, raided the home of prominent defense lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer on the evening of April 15, 2011, and arrested him, Human Rights Watch said today. Neither he nor his family was given any reason for his detention.

Human Rights Watch believes that al-Tajer is the first defense lawyer detained in more than a decade. He is well known for defending opposition figures and rights activists arrested in security sweeps. The arrest took place around 11 p.m. on April 15, when security officers surrounded and then entered al-Tajer's home. Security officers searched his home and confiscated personal items including laptops, mobile phones, and documents, before taking him away. Al-Tajer is one of 499 people currently detained by the Bahraini authorities, according to a list compiled by the Wefaq National Islamic Society, an opposition political society.

"The government's arrest of a leading defense lawyer shows that Bahrain is taking a turn for the worse on human rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should either release Mohammed al-Tajer or charge him now with a recognizable offense."

Huda al-Tajer, Mohammed's wife, told Human Rights Watch that at around 11 p.m. one of her sons came and told her and Mohammed al-Tajer that there were some men outside their home. Mohammed al-Tajer opened the door and several masked security officers came inside and began searching the home. They ordered Mohammed al-Tajer to stay downstairs while they initiated their search and told Huda al-Tajer to go upstairs and wake up the younger children who were asleep. During the next hour-and-a-half or so, the officers thoroughly searched all rooms inside the home and confiscated personal items. Huda al-Tajer said she was forced to wake up the smaller children and transfer them from one room to another as the officers completed their search.

Huda al-Tajer said that the officers allowed Mohammed al-Tajer to briefly embrace her before escorting him outside and taking him away in a police vehicle.

"My husband hasn't done anything except defend the rights of others," she told Human Rights Watch. "He is a lawyer. This is his job. He has to have immunity and protection to do his job. I have no idea where he is right now and what they are doing to him. I am really frightened."

During their search the officers also ordered Mohammed al-Tajer to hand over the key to his law office in Manama. Al-Tajer told them that he shares the office with several other lawyers, but they insisted that he give them the key regardless. Human Rights Watch is concerned that al-Tajer's arrest is an effort on the part of authorities to intimidate and silence defense lawyers.

Al-Tajer is part of a group of Bahraini lawyers who have defended opposition figures and rights activists arrested and detained by authorities during the past several years, including those picked up during the most recent security sweeps. He was one of the lead lawyers involved in the trial of 23 opposition and rights activists arrested during security sweeps last August and September and accused under Bahrain's counterterrorism law. The government released all 23 defendants on February 23, 2011, but rearrested several of them following the latest round of targeted arrests. Human Rights Watch has gathered testimony indicating that prior to their release on February 23, authorities had subjected some of the 23 to severe abuse and ill-treatment amounting to torture.

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