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(Manama) - The Bahrain Defense Force should immediately make public the reason military commanders have detained a former officer for three weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. Military authorities detained Mohammed al-Buflasa on February 15, 2011, after he spoke at the Pearl Roundabout, criticizing the government and supporting the protesters.

On March 4 the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA) announced that al-Buflasa, a 34-year-old former military officer, who is Sunni, would stand trial for "breaching the B[ahrain] D[efense] F[orce] law." This was the first official acknowledgement that al-Buflasa was in custody, but authorities have not provided any information regarding the charges against him. Prior to the BNA announcement, al-Buflasa was the only person associated with the protests whose whereabouts had not been accounted for.

"Bahrain's long silence about Mohammed al-Buflasa's whereabouts and continuing failure to explain why he's being detained suggests that authorities have locked him up solely because they did not like what he said at the Pearl Roundabout," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Al-Buflasa, who was wearing civilian clothing when he delivered one of the first speeches at the Pearl Roundabout on February 15, expressed support for public demonstrations that had begun the day before. He introduced himself as a Sunni and called for national unity between Sunnis and Shias, but did not identify himself as a military officer. His comments touched on numerous controversial issues, including discrimination against the majority Shia population and the "political naturalization" of Sunnis from other countries, which the Shia opposition claims is permitted to change Bahrain's demographic balance. Al-Buflasa disappeared shortly after leaving the Pearl Roundabout that day.

Rashid Yusif al-Buflasa, Mohammed's brother, who lives in Qatar, told Human Rights Watch that he arrived in Bahrain on February 23 to look into his brother's detention. He learned, through his sources, that authorities were holding Mohammed at Ras al-Qurayn, a military prison in southern Bahrain and that they planned to prosecute him in a military court. Rashid visited the military court in Rifah on February 23, where a military official told him his brother would be prosecuted because of statements he made and because he was a military employee.

Rashid al-Buflasa said that on February 24, authorities transferred Mohammed to the military court where the two brothers met for the first time since Mohammed's arrest. During the first and only trial session which held on February 27 and was not open to the public, the military court sentenced Mohammed to two months' imprisonment, according to Rashid.

"As his brother, I'd like to know what they've charged Mohammed with," Rashid al-Buflasa said. "I saw his speech [at the Roundabout] on YouTube. He has not done anything illegal."

He said authorities have transferred Mohammed back to Ras al-Qurayn and have allowed him to speak with his wife on the phone several times since his arrest.

Neither the Bahrain Defense Force nor military court officials responded to Human Rights Watch requests for further information about the charges. In a March 8 phone conversation, Col. Ahmad al-Khalifa, director of military cooperation with the media, told Human Rights Watch that the military court is continuing to investigate al-Buflasa's case and that he has not yet been sentenced. Colonel al-Khalifa told Human Rights Watch that al-Buflasa is an "active" military employee, and that all "members of the armed forces must get permission [from the military] before joining a party." He declined, however, to disclose the charges against al-Buflasa.

Rashid al-Buflasa said that Mohammed had served as a military officer for about 15 years. He left about three years ago to work in the media section of the Crown Prince's office, the brother said, but arranged with the military to continue his service for purpose of accruing pension benefits. Rashid said his brother had briefly run as an independent candidate in parliamentary elections held in October 2010, but then withdrew. He had not encountered any disciplinary response from the military for his candidacy, although Bahraini law precludes military officers from running for public office.

Bahrain is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary detention. It states that all people arrested "shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against [them]" and brought promptly before a judge. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has said that detention that results from the exercise of basic rights, such as freedom of expression, is considered arbitrary.

"Bahraini authorities should publicly disclose the reasons why al-Buflasa has been detained, including his military status, if any, and the specific military provisions that he has allegedly breached," Stork said. "In the absence of this information it is difficult to avoid concluding that the military has arbitrarily detained him because someone in power did not like what he had to say.

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