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Baby's death, arrest of al-Khawaja threaten government's commitment to reform

The arrest of international cause célèbre "Angry Arabiya" and the death of a five-day-old girl as a result of a tear gas attack have become the latest events threatening to overshadow Bahrain's promises of reform following a highly critical report into the pro-democracy protests earlier this year, say the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Index on Censorship and other IFEX members.

Activist Zaynab al-Khawaja (
Activist Zaynab al-Khawaja ("Angry Arabiya") is dragged by a police officer after refusing to leave a sit-in at a roundabout in Manama, 15 December 2011

Hamad I Mohammed/REUTERS

Zaynab al-Khawaja, the daughter of jailed rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and widely known by her Twitter name @angryarabiya, was violently arrested after refusing to leave a roundabout in Budaya Highway, a strategic road connecting the suburbs to the capital, after a 15 December sit-in, report BCHR, Index, ANHRI, Freedom House and the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. She was released on bail on 20 December pending trial. She faces up to two years in jail, says BCHR.

Hundreds of anti-government protesters had participated in the sit-in before being dispersed by riot police with tear gas and stun grenades, the members say.

Several people were injured because of excessive force, and one protester was allegedly killed when he was hit by a police car, reports BCHR. Bahrain's Interior Ministry has denied police were responsible for the death, which has set off a string of protests that have been violently put down by police.

Recent protests, small or large, have been dealt with in much the same way. Security forces continue to fire excessive amounts of tear gas in residential areas, says BCHR (see http://yfrog.com/od8xblij and http://yfrog.com/mgpzaphj ). BCHR President Nabeel Rajab's house was also tear gassed while his children were inside. He was not even in the country.

According to the "Financial Times", al-Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition party, says there is evidence to show that the five-day-old infant died in her home on 11 December as a result of inhalation of tear gas fired by riot police. But the government denied the claims, saying the Health Ministry had confirmed the cause of death as bacterial meningitis.

The violations come barely a month after Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) released a damning report stating that "excessive force" had been used when the government crushed the February and March protests. The report said that detainees had been blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions. BICI also criticised the "disproportionate" use of tear gas, some of which is produced in the U.S.

The regime expressed "dismay" at the findings and insists reforms will proceed. So far, it has created a national commission to implement the recommendations, which include holding officials to account and making military sentences subject to civil court review, reports Index. The government has also hired two overseas police officers to oversee security changes - although one of them is former Miami police chief John Timoney, "well-known for his ability to crush protests," said Sara Yasin of Index.

Both the U.S. and UN are sending envoys to Bahrain to monitor the implementation of the BICI recommendations.

"Such goals are more long-term, and do not address the current situation," said Yasin. "If the government expects to move forward, and gain trust from those who do not believe that the commission was nothing more than an exercise to repair the international reputation of Bahrain, then it is important to allow protesters to demonstrate, and to change the crackdown on protesters on the ground."

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