(Manama) - More than two dozen uniformed and plainclothes security officers, most of whom were masked, raided the home of prominent defense lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer on the evening of April 15, 2011, and arrested him, Human Rights Watch said today. Neither he nor his family was given any reason for his detention.
Human Rights Watch believes that al-Tajer is the first defense lawyer detained in more than a decade. He is well known for defending opposition figures and rights activists arrested in security sweeps. The arrest took place around 11 p.m. on April 15, when security officers surrounded and then entered al-Tajer's home. Security officers searched his home and confiscated personal items including laptops, mobile phones, and documents, before taking him away. Al-Tajer is one of 499 people currently detained by the Bahraini authorities, according to a list compiled by the Wefaq National Islamic Society, an opposition political society.
"The government's arrest of a leading defense lawyer shows that Bahrain is taking a turn for the worse on human rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should either release Mohammed al-Tajer or charge him now with a recognizable offense."
Huda al-Tajer, Mohammed's wife, told Human Rights Watch that at around 11 p.m. one of her sons came and told her and Mohammed al-Tajer that there were some men outside their home. Mohammed al-Tajer opened the door and several masked security officers came inside and began searching the home. They ordered Mohammed al-Tajer to stay downstairs while they initiated their search and told Huda al-Tajer to go upstairs and wake up the younger children who were asleep. During the next hour-and-a-half or so, the officers thoroughly searched all rooms inside the home and confiscated personal items. Huda al-Tajer said she was forced to wake up the smaller children and transfer them from one room to another as the officers completed their search.
Huda al-Tajer said that the officers allowed Mohammed al-Tajer to briefly embrace her before escorting him outside and taking him away in a police vehicle.
"My husband hasn't done anything except defend the rights of others," she told Human Rights Watch. "He is a lawyer. This is his job. He has to have immunity and protection to do his job. I have no idea where he is right now and what they are doing to him. I am really frightened."
During their search the officers also ordered Mohammed al-Tajer to hand over the key to his law office in Manama. Al-Tajer told them that he shares the office with several other lawyers, but they insisted that he give them the key regardless. Human Rights Watch is concerned that al-Tajer's arrest is an effort on the part of authorities to intimidate and silence defense lawyers.
Al-Tajer is part of a group of Bahraini lawyers who have defended opposition figures and rights activists arrested and detained by authorities during the past several years, including those picked up during the most recent security sweeps. He was one of the lead lawyers involved in the trial of 23 opposition and rights activists arrested during security sweeps last August and September and accused under Bahrain's counterterrorism law. The government released all 23 defendants on February 23, 2011, but rearrested several of them following the latest round of targeted arrests. Human Rights Watch has gathered statements indicating that prior to their release on February 23, authorities had subjected some of the 23 to severe abuse and ill-treatment amounting to torture.
Recent Arrests of Doctors
Two days prior to al-Tajer's arrest, authorities detained Dr. Sadeq Abdulla, a vascular surgeon at the Salmaniya Medical Complex. Interior Ministry officials summoned Abdulla to the ministry's headquarters in Manama at around 11 p.m. on April 14, according to a source close to the family. His wife and his father-in-law accompanied him to the ministry. They waited there for several hours but Abdulla never emerged. The source told Human Rights Watch that the family contacted an officer at the Interior Ministry on April 15 to inquire about the status of Abdulla and was told that he would be in custody for "a few more days." No information was provided regarding the reasons for Abdulla's arrest.
Later that day Abdulla called his wife and told her that "he was fine." The authorities allowed Abdulla's family to drop off his medications at the Criminal Investigations Directorate in Adliya on the same day, but have so far not allowed his family or his lawyer to visit him. Abdulla's family believes that authorities are currently detaining him at the Adliya police station.
Abdulla is one of at least 19 doctors arrested by authorities since March 17, at least eight of whom were arrested within the past week. Authorities arrested Dr. Kholood al-Derazi and Dr. Nayara Sarhan on April 14, and Dr. Sadeq Jaffar on April 13. Two days before that they arrested Dr. Nabeel Tammam, Dr. Nabeel Hameed, Dr. Aref Rajab, Dr. Abd al-Shaheed Fadhal, and Zahra al-Sammak. The authorities had previously detained al-Sammak on March 19. She is the wife of Dr.Ghassan Dhaif, who has been custody since March 19. Dr. Tammam and several of the other doctors arrested after March 17 have since been released.
"We have serious concerns regarding the well-being and safety of some of the detainees," said Stork. "The authorities should immediately provide information on the whereabouts of all detainees arrested since March 17 and permit them to meet with their families and lawyers."
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bahrain ratified in 1998, requires that anyone arrested shall be promptly informed of any charges and brought before a judge or other judicial authority. A refusal of the authorities to acknowledge a person's detention or provide information on their fate or whereabouts would be an enforced disappearance.
Since March 15, Bahrain has been subject to martial law, officially labeled a state of "National Safety," that gave authorities wide powers of arrest, censorship, and prohibitions on freedom of movement and association. Even during a state of emergency, fundamental rights - such as the right to life, the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the prohibition on discrimination - must always be respected, Human Rights Watch said.
Any restrictions on other rights during a genuine emergency must be strictly limited.