Bahrain’s detention this week of anti-torture activist `Abd al-Rauf al-Shayeb appears designed to head off a planned demonstration during the country’s first Formula One race, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Committee of Martyrs and Torture Victims, al-Shayeb’s organization, had called for a demonstration tomorrow, the final day of the Formula One auto race being held this weekend in Bahrain for the first time. The Committee has organized well-attended and peaceful protests in the past against Law 56, a government decree that effectively confers immunity from investigation or prosecution of present and former government officials alleged to be responsible for torture and other serious human rights abuses.
Al-Shayeb was detained on March 30 along with an Indonesian domestic worker whom he was reportedly visiting in the home of her employer without the employer’s permission.
“Bahrain promotes itself as a model of democracy and tolerance, and has taken many positive steps towards reform in the past several years,” said Joe Stork, acting executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “But such a crude effort to squelch a public protest puts in doubt the government’s proclaimed commitment to respect basic civil rights.”
Bahrain’s public prosecutor ordered al-Shayeb held for one week for investigation. As of Friday, April 2, al-Shayeb had not been permitted visits from his family and had not seen a lawyer.
Bahrain normally does not publicize arrests in alleged vice cases until after convictions, and even then suspects are identified only by their initials. In this case, government-controlled dailies al-Ayyam and Akhbar al-Khalij on April 1 reported al-Shayeb’s arrest and identified him by name, citing a press release from the Ministry of Interior.
Last year the Committee for Martyrs and Torture Victims circulated and presented to King Hamad bin `Issa Al Khalifa a petition that reportedly gathered 33,000 signatures calling on him to annul Decree 56 and to establish an independent commission to investigate allegations of torture by security officials.
Two days before his arrested al-Shayeb had returned to Bahrain from Geneva, where he met with Theo van Boven, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, and members of the Committee against Torture. Bahrain acceded to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in March 1998.
Decree 56 was issued in October 23, 2002, weeks before Bahrain’s partially elected new parliament met for the first time. The decree extends a February 2001 amnesty to cover acts of government officials. Human Rights Watch has urged King Hamad to clarify that this amnesty should not apply to serious crimes such as torture.