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(Manama) - Bahrain authorities should immediately release prominent opposition and rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, or bring him before an independent judge and charge him with a recognizable offense, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch also called on authorities to allow an independent medical doctor immediate and unconditional access to al-Kahawaja, 50, whom witnesses say was badly beaten by riot police when they raided his daughter's home in the predawn hours of April 9, 2011. Al-Khawaja, an opposition and rights activist, has worked for national and international human rights organizations, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Dublin-based Front Line.

"The brutal beating of rights activist Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja by police during a warrantless predawn raid adds cruelty on top of illegality," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "He should be released immediately."

At about 2 a.m., according to al-Khawaja's daughter, Zainab al-Khawaja, about 15 masked men, armed and mostly in black uniforms, forced open the doors to the building where she lives in the village of Muqsha, and stormed into her fourth-floor apartment after breaking the door with a sledge hammer. They grabbed Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja by the neck and hustled him and two sons-in-law, Wafi al-Majid and Hussein Ahmed, to a third-floor landing where they beat and kicked them.

Zainab al-Khawaja told Human Rights Watch that she heard her father gasp, "I can't breathe," and saw him slumped to the floor. When she tried to intervene, the masked men said they would take her too, but then forced her back into her apartment. She said that she later found traces of blood on the staircase.

The masked men forced Mohammed al-Maskati, also a son-in-law of Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja and head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, downstairs into an apartment where they handcuffed him and forced him, along with al-Khawaja, Hussein, and al-Majid, to lie face-down on the floor. Al-Maskati said they slapped him and one placed his boot on al-Maskati's neck. When the masked men recognized his name, they took him to an adjacent room, removed his handcuffs, and ordered him to stay inside, al-Maskati said.

Zainab al-Khawaja told Human Rights Watch that she saw two police jeeps and six black unmarked jeeps with smoked-glass windows depart from the front of her building. The entire raid lasted about 45 minutes, she said. None of the masked men produced a warrant or identification.

Zainab al-Khawaja said her father had spoken out at Pearl Roundabout in Manama and called for members of the ruling Al Khalifa family to be tried on charges of alleged corruption and torture. In February, al-Khawaja resigned as regional protection coordinator for Front Line, a Dublin-based international organization dedicated to protecting human rights defenders, in order to work with the political opposition in Bahrain. He is also a founder and former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. During the upheaval in Bahrain, he had received death threats by SMS and social networking sites, Zainab al-Khawaja said.

Human Rights Watch has gathered information on more than a dozen predawn raids in Bahrain in recent weeks. The detainees are held virtually incommunicado, with at most one or two brief phone calls allowed from places of detention to ask for fresh clothing. Families of the detainees say they were not permitted to see their relatives or lawyers. The government has provided no registry of detainees.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States and the European Union to speak out against Bahrain's crackdown on dissent. Since March 16, Bahraini police and armed forces, backed by forces from Saudi Arabia, have suppressed pro-democracy protests in Manama.

Abuses have escalated in recent weeks, including beatings at checkpoints by masked uniformed and plainclothes men, nightly raids on homes of perceived activists and demonstrators, and the forcible removal from hospitals of badly injured patients who appear to have sustained injuries from police.

"Washington and the European Union have been disturbingly vague in their response to Bahrain's brutal suppression of democracy activists," Stork said. "President Obama properly calls Syria's response to protesters ‘abhorrent,' but the routine depredations in Bahrain, in apparent deference to Saudi Arabia, pass without any public criticism."

Human Rights Watch called on European Union foreign ministers to publicly condemn Bahrain's repressive measures and demand the immediate release of those arbitrarily detained in the crackdown when they meet in Luxembourg on April 12. Human Rights Watch also called on the European Union and the United States to ban all export licensing for security equipment and arms from European Union member states to Bahrain until the crackdown on dissenting voices ends.

On March 16, police and soldiers forcibly cleared Manama's Pearl Roundabout, the center of anti-government demonstrations that began a month earlier, two days after Saudi Arabia sent troops and tanks into Bahrain. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the time criticized Bahrain's resort to force against largely peaceful protesters, but since then US officials have been publicly silent except for one statement about the arrest of a prominent blogger, who was subsequently released.

Security forces have killed at least 18 people since protests began, 11 of them since March 15. Police make nightly raids in Shia neighborhoods and villages, invading households looking for protest participants or supporters.

Since March 15, police and the military have operated under martial law, officially termed a "state of national safety." On April 4, the government published a list of powers given the Bahrain Defense Force and other security agencies that include censorship, restrictions on non-government groups, political societies, and unions, and the right to curb movement, seal off parts of the country, and arrest anyone suspected of threatening "safety of citizens."

The Wifaq National Islamic Society, an opposition political party, says that police have detained some 430 people over the past six weeks. Wifaq relies on families reporting the missing and presumed detained and updates the list on a regular basis. Human Rights Watch has documented the arbitrary arrests and detention of more than a dozen medical personnel and physicians.

"Martial law cannot mean open season on peaceful demonstrators and political opponents," Stork said. "Those arrested must still be promptly brought before a judge to determine the lawfulness of the detention and their families given access."

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