(Manama) - Bahraini authorities should immediately release seven prominent opposition activists and a surgeon arrested on March 17, 2011, or charge them with a recognizable criminal offense and bring them immediately before an independent judicial authority, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also reveal their whereabouts and provide them with immediate access to counsel and their families.
The official Bahrain News Agency announced on March 17 that the Bahraini Defense Force had arrested "several leaders of the sedition ring who had called for the downfall of the regime and had intelligence contacts with foreign countries." The statement accused the seven of inciting violence that led to the "killing of citizens and the destruction of public and private property." On March 15 King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa decreed a three-month state of emergency to quell continuing peaceful anti-government street protests.
"The government is depriving them of their liberty in a completely arbitrary manner, apparently for their leading roles in peaceful protests demanding democracy," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "At this point the lawyers and families of the people who have been arrested don't even know who is holding them or where."
Security forces arrested the seven activists between 2 and 5 a.m. on March 17. The surgeon, Dr. Ali Alekry, was detained later the same day. The arrested activists are Ebrahim Sharif, leader of the National Democratic Action Society; Hassan Mushaima, leader of the Haq Movement of Liberties and Democracy; Abd al-Wahab Hussein, leader of the al-Wefa Islamic Movement; Abdul-Jalil al-Singace, a leading member of the Haq Movement; Shaikh Saeed al-Nuri, a cleric and political activist; Shaikh Abd al-Hadi al-Mukhuther, also a cleric and political activist; and Hassan al-Haddad, a member of the Committee of the Unemployed.
Dr. Alekry was arrested at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country's largest public health facility, after security forces surrounded the hospital. The whereabouts of another cleric and political activist, Shaikh Muhammed Habib al-Moqdad, are currently unknown. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm reports that he has been arrested.
Sharif, al-Singace, Mushaima, and Hussein are leading members of political societies that formed a loose coalition demanding democratic reforms. Sharif's secular leftist National Democratic Action Society (Wa'ad), along with the main Shia opposition group (al-Wifaq), has called for Bahrain's transformation to a constitutional monarchy. Mushaima, al-Singace, and Hussein's groups formed the "Coalition for a Republic," which called for abolishing the monarchy altogether. Sheikh al-Nuri, Sheikh al-Mukhuther, and Sheikh al-Moqdad were generally regarded as being more closely aligned with those seeking more radical changes in the power structure.
Dr. Alekry has been an outspoken critic of the government's actions following the attack on protesters at the Pearl Roundabout during the early morning hours of February 17 that led to the deaths of four Bahrainis, and has more recently been a leading voice in exposing restrictions on providing medical care to injured protesters.
Farida Qolam, Sharif's wife, released a statement on March 17 describing her husband's arrest. She said that their doorbell rang at about 1:50 a.m. When the couple opened the door they saw a large group of men wearing masks behind the entry gate, most of them wearing black civilian clothes. One pointed a gun toward Sharif, who gently asked him to put it down.
The couple repeatedly asked the men who they were, Qolam said, and one finally replied that they were "state security" (amn el dawla) and demanded that Sharif open the gate. Sharif did and went out to speak with them. In her statement, Qolam said there were 35 to 40 people in all, about 6 carrying guns. They took Sharif away to an undisclosed location.
Two of the lawyers handling the activists' cases told Human Rights Watch that several hours after security forces arrested their clients, the lawyers had filed requests to visit the arrested men with both the civil Public Prosecution Office and the office of the military prosecutor. The lawyers said the offices refused to accept their request or provide any information regarding the circumstances of the activists' detention.
The lawyers also told Human Rights Watch that Bahraini law does not provide any regulations limiting Bahraini Defense Force actions under a martial law decree. The explanatory memorandum to Article 36(b) of the Bahraini constitution says only that the "state of national safety" authorizes the government to restrict peoples' rights and freedoms to the extent required to preserve the national security.
Under international law, a state may not invoke a public emergency to justify arbitrary deprivations of liberty or unacknowledged detentions, nor may it deviate from fundamental principles of fair trial, including the presumption of innocence. People held as administrative detainees under a lawful state of emergency should, at a minimum, have the right to be brought before a judicial authority promptly after their arrest, be informed of the reasons for their detention, and have prompt 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.
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 state 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 and the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment - must always be respected, even during a public emergency.
"To the best of our knowledge Bahraini authorities have not made public any rules or regulations under the so-called national safety law," Stork said. "The authorities apparently think they can do as they wish, but they are wrong."