Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bahrain: Activists attacked, arrested on protest anniversary

Source: IFEX

On Tuesday's one-year anniversary of Bahrain's uprising, security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters trying to retake Pearl Square, the epicentre of last year's protests, and arrested dozens - including several international observers, report the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and news reports.

BCHR president Nabeel Rajab, who led a demonstration toward the square, was among those attacked and briefly detained. After his release several hours later, he updated his Twitter feed with just one word: "resistance."

In a morning tweet on 15 February, Rajab said he has been "accused by the prosecutor of inciting people to protest... and taking part in an unauthorised gathering."

Thousands of riot police and other security forces had staked out positions around the square and across the Gulf island nation in the lead-up to the day.

Rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja, widely known by her Twitter name @angryarabiya, was arrested on 12 February while marching to the square, and will be kept in police custody for seven days, reports BCHR. The centre said her arrest was "directly linked to both her work in the defence of human rights and democracy in Bahrain and online activities in reporting the news and events at a time in which the government pursues a policy of media blackout."

BCHR has received numerous reports of other injuries and arrests, as well as eyewitness accounts that Saudi troops were being sent into Bahrain. According to AFP, wounded protesters avoided hospitals for fear of arrest or intimidation by the authorities.

The government meanwhile said in a statement it had deported six U.S. citizens for joining the "illegal demonstrations," bringing the number of Americans expelled from Bahrain to eight since the end of last week. All eight were all part of the Witness Bahrain initiative, which arrived in Bahrain in response to a call by Bahraini democracy activists to monitor the policing of demonstrations in the country. Bahrain's state news agency reported that they were deported "for applying for tourist visas under false pretences."

In a warning to activists on the eve of the anniversary, public security chief Major General Tariq al-Hassan cautioned Bahrainis "against responding to incitement through social media channels and calling for illegal processions or other activities that create general disorder."

Hassan said in a statement published on the official news agency website that the security forces would not hesitate to respond to those "who insist on exploiting the freedom and democratic atmosphere of Bahrain to promote irresponsible, violent and illegal behaviour."

Emergency rule was lifted in June, but protests have become an almost daily occurrence, triggering clashes with security forces that have routinely used excessive force to quell them.

IFEX members who took part in an international mission last November say that Bahrain has failed to deliver on promises of human rights reform recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). According to the mission, at least 50 people have been killed during months of unprecedented political unrest, some while in police custody.

Following up on their mission, IFEX members and partners are calling for freedom for jailed human rights defenders, such as BCHR founder (and Zainab's father) Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who is serving a life sentence for his involvement in last year's protests. Now on the eighth day of a hunger strike and in hospital, he says he will continue to refuse food "until freedom or death."

One of the mission members, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), is calling on the Arab League and the international community, which have so far remained "shamefully silent" on rights abuses in Bahrain, to pressure the Bahraini authorities to release political prisoners, as well as "to cease the violence used against peaceful protests, and to respond to the people's legitimate demands calling for democratic reform."

Other IFEX members have called on Bahrain to lift all travel restrictions on foreign journalists and international human rights organisations. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Index on Censorship, Bahrain has rejected at least six journalists' applications for entry visas ahead of the anniversary. CPJ says the journalists were told the rejections are due to a "high volume of requests," but that they are welcome to reapply after February.