Anti-government protesters shout slogans at riot policemen as they block a road in Manama March 13, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Manama) - Bahrain's declaration of martial law and deployment of armed forces from Saudi Arabia does not override its obligations to respect fundamental human rights under international law, Human Rights Watch said today.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa decreed a three-month state of emergency on March 15, 2011, a day after military convoys from its Gulf Cooperation Council allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain following that country's request for military assistance amidst continuing anti-government protests. Early on March 15, prior to the king's decree, riot police were involved in violence in several Shia villages, which left at least two people dead and hundreds injured, some seriously.

"King Hamad's decree does not give the authorities a blank check  to commit abuses," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The world is watching to see whether Bahrain will respect the basic rights of all its citizens."

According to the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA), the decision to declare martial law "was taken in light of the latest security escalations that affected national security and posed a serious threat" to the lives of Bahraini citizens. The BNA announcement said that the king had delegated implementation powers to the commander-in-chief of the Bahrain Defense Force, Marshal Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.

The Bahrain Defense Force later stated that the king's decree, apparently issued under article 36(b) of the Bahrain constitution, permits the government to control movement and transportation, conduct inspections, ban gatherings, and ban the operation of nongovernmental organizations, political societies, and trade unions. Under what the authorities called the state of "national safety," the government can also ban newspapers, make arrests, and engage in surveillance and monitoring of correspondence and telephone conversations. Officials said that the military judiciary director of the Bahrain Defense Force would announce specific restrictions that will apply to all citizens.

The king's decree follows more than three weeks of sustained and large anti-government demonstrations, almost all of which have been peaceful. The authorities initially responded to the protests with unlawful lethal force, killing seven protesters between February 14 and 18. After protesters reoccupied Manama's Pearl Roundabout, the center of anti-government protests, on February 19, the government withdrew its security forces. But on March 11 and 13, security forces used teargas, rubber bullets, and batons against peaceful protesters, injuring hundreds.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 2006, permits some restrictions on certain rights during an officially proclaimed public emergency that "threatens the life of the nation." According to the Human Rights Committee, the international body of experts that monitors compliance with the treaty, any derogation of rights during a public emergency must be of an exceptional and temporary nature, and must be "limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation." Certain fundamental rights - such as the right to life, the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment - must always be respected, even during a public emergency.

Under international law, states may not invoke a public emergency to permit arbitrary deprivations of liberty or unacknowledged detentions, nor may they deviate from fundamental principles of fair trial, including the presumption of innocence. People held as administrative detainees under a lawful state of emergency should enjoy, at a minimum, the right to be brought before a judicial authority promptly after arrest, be informed of the reasons for detention, and have immediate access to legal counsel and family. They also should be allowed to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in a fair hearing, and to seek a remedy for mistreatment and arbitrary detention.

Early on March 15, security forces were involved in clashes in several Shia villages outside Manama, where they fired teargas, rubber bullets, and shotgun pellets. The clashes led to the deaths of at least two individuals. Ahmad Farhan, described in media reports as a 24-year-old resident of Sitra, was killed by shotgun pellets that were fired at close enough range to leave a gaping hole in his head. Human Rights Watch confirmed the death of a second man, a Bangladeshi worker, who was also killed in Sitra. There are conflicting reports regarding the circumstances surrounding this man's death. The authorities should promptly and impartially investigate both killings, Human Rights Watch said.

"Bahrain cannot sidestep its international legal obligations by using foreign troops for law and order purposes," said Stork. "Saudi and other forces need to abide by the human rights treaties and standards applicable to Bahrain's forces."

Human Rights Watch said that Bahraini and Gulf Cooperation Council  troops, as well as other security forces deployed in Bahrain, are bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, even though some states, such as Saudi Arabia, are not party to the treaty.  They should also abide by the Untied Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms when engaging with protesters. The Basic Principles allow law enforcement agents to use only that degree of force necessary and proportionate to protect people and property and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The Basic Principles call on governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force or firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.