(Washington, DC) - Bahrain's King Hamad Al Khalifa and Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Al Khalifa should immediately and publicly order a halt to deadly attacks on peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks have left at least five dead and hundreds wounded, some critically, since February 14, 2011.
Human Rights Watch also called on King Hamad to explain who was responsible for ordering the 3 a.m. attack on February 17 on a demonstrators' camp at Manama's Pearl Roundabout while most of those inside, including families with children, reportedly were sleeping. The king should hold those responsible fully accountable for the unlawful use of lethal force. The assault, which led to three deaths, involved hundreds of riot police and at least one helicopter, showing all the signs of having been planned and authorized at very high levels, Human Rights Watch said.
"There is absolutely no excuse for this escalating use of deadly force, and apparent misuse of weapons like teargas, against sleeping people," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "King Hamad and other high officials need to explain how and why this happened and to hold everyone who authorized and carried out this attack fully accountable."
At around 3 a.m., hundreds of security forces surrounded and then attacked the camp of protesters who had peacefully gathered earlier Wednesday. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that riot police were armed with teargas, batons, and "birdshot." ABC-TV reporter Miguel Marquez, in a live broadcast from the scene, said police were "firing tons of tear gas" into the encampment. Moments later Marquez was beaten by men in street clothes whom he characterized as "thugs."
Maryam al-Khawaja, who works with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was at a "media center" tent across the street from the Pearl Roundabout when the attack occurred. She told Human Rights Watch that there had been no warning or request to disperse. Al-Khawaja said the police surrounded the encampment from all sides, allowing no escape from the teargas and weapons fire.
"If they simply wanted to disperse the gathering they would have left a way out," she said.
Several hundred demonstrators were taken to Manama's Salmaniyya hospital and others to the American Mission Hospital. Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that he was at Salmaniyya hospital in the morning and saw the bodies of three people killed hours before. He said he saw many injuries, especially head wounds.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with a man who said he was at the Pearl Roundabout at the time of the attack but who asked not to be named for security reasons. He said that for several hours he observed police blocking ambulances and medics from reaching the trapped protesters. He estimated that at least 3,000 people were in the camp.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bahrain must protect and promote the right to life, freedom of expression and association, and the right to assemble peacefully. Bahrain should also abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which state that lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, and must be exercised with restraint and proportionality.
The Principles also require governments to "ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law" and that "superior officers are held responsible if they know, or should have known, that law enforcement officials under their command are resorting, or have resorted, to the unlawful use of force and firearms, and they did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress or report such use."
Protesters had occupied the Pearl Roundabout after police attacks on earlier demonstrations on February 14 and 15 killed two protesters and wounded many others.