(Washington, DC) - The Bahraini government should immediately release four opposition activists detained in recent days or bring formal charges against them, Human Rights Watch said today. The men's whereabouts are unknown, and they have not been allowed to contact their families or lawyer.
Several uniformed and plainclothes officers took Abd al-Jalil al-Singace into custody at Bahrain International Airport on August 13, 2010, as he returned from London with his family. Security forces arrested three other activists, Abd-al Ghani al-Khanjar, Sheikh Said al-Nuri, and Sheikh Muhammad Habib al-Moqdad, on August 15. Both al-Singace and al-Khanjar had attended a conference at the House of Lords in London on August 5, during which they criticized Bahrain's human rights practices.
Bahraini media cited unnamed security officials as saying they had arrested al-Singace for "inciting violence and terrorist acts." On Friday evening, according to Bahraini media, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa told other high officials that security forces would take "necessary measures" against "those who defame the country," although he apparently did not mention al-Singace by name.
"If the government of Bahrain can show these activists are engaged in criminal behavior, why is it resorting to vague and anonymous allegations?" said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "A country that respects human rights, as Bahrain claims to do, does not arrest people just because they harshly criticize the government."
The state-run Bahrain News Agency on August 15 cited a source at the National Security Agency as saying that security forces had arrested al-Khanjar, al-Nuri, and al-Moqdad for unspecified activities intended to "undermine security and stability in the country."
As of the evening of August 16 authorities had not brought the four before the public prosecutor, as required by law, or formally charged them, although al-Singace had been in custody well over the 48-hour limit specified in Bahraini law for filing charges.
Muhammad al-Tajer, the lawyer for the four, told Human Rights Watch that as of today the government had refused to provide him and the men's family members with information regarding their whereabouts or reasons for their arrests. None had been brought to the Public Prosecution Office or charged with any crime. The Public Prosecution Office "told me that there isn't even a case number for my clients at the moment," al-Tajer said.
Security officials who arrested al-Singace at the airport initially told his family that they would take him to the Public Prosecution Office for questioning at 9 p.m. that evening, but as of today, neither his lawyer nor his family had seen or been able to make contact with him.
"My father has vanished," Husain al-Singace, Abd al-Jalil al-Singace's son, told Human Rights Watch. "Most of all we are worried about his health. He is fasting [for Ramadan] and he cannot walk on his own. We don't even know if he is in a wheelchair or not."
Al-Singace, who teaches engineering at the University of Bahrain, has difficulty getting around without a wheelchair or crutches. He is a leader of the Haq Movement for Civil Liberties and Democracy, an opposition political organization based in the country's Shi`a community that has advocated boycotting elections and elected officials.
Al-Tajer told Human Rights Watch that he has contacted numerous government agencies and officials since August 13, including the Interior Ministry, but none acknowledged having arrested the four or provided information about their cases. He said he believes the National Security Agency is holding them, but because this is an intelligence agency he has been unable to speak with anyone there.
On August 14, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Bahrain's Interior Minister, Lieutenant General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, asking that officials allow al-Singace to contact his family and lawyer and seeking information about his whereabouts and the reasons for his arrest and detention. The government has not responded to this request.
Al-Singace's family said security officials at the airport confiscated al-Singace's laptop and mobile phone, along with other personal effects. Muhammad al-Khanjar, Abd al-Ghani al-Khanjar's brother, told Human Rights Watch that security forces confiscated al-Khanjar's laptop and personal effects when they raided his home at about 3:30 a.m. on August 15 and arrested him. Muhammad al-Khanjar said that authorities again searched his brother's home around the same time on August 16. Abd al-Ghani al-Khanjar is spokesperson for the Bahraini National Committee for Martyrs and Victims of Torture. Al-Tajer, the lawyer, said that security forces conducted similar raids at the homes of al-Nuri and al-Moqdad.
At this writing there were further arrests on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Authorities arrested Jaffar al-Hessabi, who lives in London, at Bahrain International Airport as he returned from a trip to Iran. Authorities also arrested Muhammad Saeed, Mirza al-Mahroos, and Abd-al Hadi al-Mukhuder in their homes. Saeed is a board member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Bahrain is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 9 of the ICCPR states that "anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him," and "shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power."
Under Bahraini criminal law, authorities must present suspects to the Public Prosecution Office within 48 hours of arrest. The Public Prosecution Office is required to question the detainee "immediately" or, if not feasible, within 24 hours. After questioning, prosecutors must decide whether to charge the suspect with a criminal offense and, if they file charges, whether to continue his detention or order his release. Suspects have the right to have a lawyer present while being questioned by the Public Prosecution Office.
Bahrain's 2006 counterterrorism law allows security forces to detain a suspect for up to 15 days before presenting the person to the public prosecutor, a period that does not appear to meet the ICCPR's requirement of "promptly" presenting the accused before a judicial body. Authorities have not invoked this law in connection with these detentions.
"The government is holding these men incommunicado and has failed to provide any information about why they have been arrested and where they are being held," Stork said. "At the very least, these detainees should be allowed to contact their immediate families and seek the assistance of counsel."