(Manama) - Political reform in Bahrain has to include a transparent and independent investigation into government-initiated violence that claimed the lives of seven protesters and injured hundreds of others, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on authorities to prosecute those responsible for perpetrating the violence as well as for abusing people taken into custody.
On Monday, February 21, 2011, 32-year-old Redha Bu Hameed died from serious injuries caused as a result of bullet wounds to his head - the seventh victim of gunfire by security forces since February 14. On February 18 the army as well as riot police shot live rounds, metallic pellets, rubber bullets, and teargas at demonstrators approaching the Pearl Roundabout to demonstrate against earlier violence by security forces.
"Real reform in Bahrain cannot take place without judicial accountability for serious human rights violations committed by security forces - and those who ordered the deadly assaults on peaceful protesters," said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "Bahrain's existing treaty obligations also require nothing less."
Bahrain's government has announced that it will investigate the killings of protesters, but it is not apparent whether such an investigation will be independent and transparent, or whether it will cover the deaths of all seven protesters in addition to looking into allegations of injuries, arbitrary arrests, and abuse or ill-treatment of detainees following the attacks.
Human Rights Watch has documented serious human rights violations committed by security forces against peaceful protesters including use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and abuse and ill-treatment of detainees picked up by security forces during demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch confirmed the use of live ammunition against protesters as well as birdshot pellets and rubber bullets by the military and security forces. The vast majority of deaths were caused by pellets. The seven protesters killed are Ali Mushaima, 21 (died February 14), Fadhel al-Matrook, 31 (died February 15), Mahmoud Ahmed Makki, 23 (died February 17), Ali Mansour Ahmad Khudeir, 53 (died February 17), Isa Abdul Hassan, 60 (died February 17), Ali al-Moamen, 22 (died February 17), and Redha Bu Hameed, 32 (died February 21 as a result of injuries sustained on February 18).
Bu Hameed, the demonstrator who died on February 21, was engaged in a peaceful protest at the time army and riot police fired on protesters, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. They said that he and other protesters approached military and security units positioned to prevent demonstrators from reaching the Pearl Roundabout with their hands raised to show that they were not carrying any weapons. Their accounts are apparently corroborated by a YouTube video of the incident.
Sixty-year-old Isa Abdul Hassan was shot to death during the riot police raid on the Pearl Roundabout in the early morning hours of February 17. Mohamed, who witnessed the killing but asked not to be identified further, told Human Rights Watch, "Isa Abdul Hassan spoke to the police. He said that he was not going to move because it was a peaceful protest. We all had the right to do it and we were not doing anything illegal. As soon as he said that, one policeman took a gun from another, put it to his head, right in the middle of his forehead, and fired. Abdul Hassan's head split open; he died on the spot."
Another witness who wished to remain unnamed and who participated in the February 18 demonstration told Human Rights Watch that as he and other protesters approached riot police and army personnel close to the Pearl Roundabout, they heard the faint voice of someone over a loudspeaker in the distance but could not make out what the speaker was saying. He said the protesters continued to move forward, chanting "Peaceful, Peaceful!" and had their hands raised when security forces suddenly opened fire. Abdul Redha Buhmaid died as a result of a bullet to his head.
Human Rights Watch has also documented incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention, and abuse and ill-treatment amounting to torture. Sadiq Alekri, a 44-year-old doctor from Salmaniyya hospital was at the Pearl Roundabout in a medical tent the evening of February 16 and the morning of February 17, when riot police attacked. He told Human Rights Watch that he and his staff were wearing jackets with the Red Crescent emblem on them, and carried identification cards indicating they were part of a volunteer medical team. A little after 3 a.m., he said, he heard someone yelling that riot police were attacking the camp. He went out to see what was going on and was immediately engulfed in teargas and sounds of gunfire.
Several minutes later, he said, riot police confronted him with sticks and guns. When they attempted to handcuff him, he sat on the floor, raised his hands, and told them he is a doctor. They proceeded to handcuff him from behind and several of them began punching, kicking, and beating him with sticks. They then lifted him and walked him to an unknown location. Alekri said that every 100 meters or so other riot police punched and kicked him. During one attack, someone struck him in the face with a stick, fracturing his nose. As a result of the repeated beatings, Alekri also sustained damage to his left eye, which caused temporary loss of vision.
Alekri told Human Rights Watch that after this series of attacks he was loaded onto a dark bus parked somewhere close to the Pearl Roundabout. As he boarded the bus one of the officers pulled down the doctor's pants, raising concern that he might face sexual assault. A police officer then walked him into the bus, forced him into a seat with handcuffs still on, and pulled his shirt over his head. Before sitting he noticed other detainees inside the bus. Alekri said that for the next hour or so several police officers walked up and the aisle and beat the detainees repeatedly. Alekri told Human Rights Watch that one threatened him, saying: "If you bleed in my chair with your dirty blood I will beat you to death!"
Alekri said that the police eventually allowed him and three of the other detainees to board an ambulance. He was admitted to Salmaniyya hospital at 6 a.m. on February 17, with severe injuries to his face, back, and torso. On February 22 a tired Alekri, still nursing a fractured nose and heavily bruised face, underwent facial surgery.
Human Rights Watch previously documented attacks against paramedics whom police prevented from providing timely and critical care to those wounded following the early morning attack against protesters camped out at the Pearl Roundabout.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture, Bahrain must prevent the use of torture by its security forces, and has an obligation to 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."
"The Bahraini government should urgently establish an independent commission tasked with investigating the use of deadly force against peaceful demonstrators and statements by protesters who say they were abused or tortured after arrest," said Stork. "Prosecution of those responsible for any unlawful attacks is a critical element to any meaningful political reform."