(Beirut) – Bahraini riot police beat a prominent human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as he was leaving a peaceful protest on January 6, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bahraini authorities should immediately halt attacks on peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said.
The Interior Ministry said on its Twitter account that the police gave the protesters, who were calling for the release of detainees, a warning before dispersing them. Human Rights Watch talked to four participants in the demonstration who said that the riot police told them they would allow five minutes for the protesters to disperse on their own, but started firing sound bombs and teargas within one minute after the warning. While dispersing the demonstration the police assaulted at least three protesters in addition to Rajab.
“The riot police’s assault on Nabeel Rajab and other peaceful demonstrators shows once again the government’s intolerance of peaceful assemblies,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to investigate this incident and hold those responsible for the attack to account.”
Rajab, a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East Advisory Committee, told Human Rights Watch that the police attacked him using their fists and batons at about 8:30 p.m., as he was walking toward his car:
I noticed a number of riot police behind me. They were all in uniform. They started beating me and I fell on the ground. I told them that I was Nabeel Rajab, hoping that they would stop, but they kept beating and kicking me.... Then an officer showed up and stopped them. I don’t exactly know how many riot police attacked me because they came from behind but I think there were three or four.
The Interior Ministry stated on its Twitter account that riot police had found Rajab “lying on the ground” and transported him to the Salmaniya Medical Complex for treatment.
Rajab spent several hours in the hospital. He said that he still has difficulty walking because of back pain and has filed a complaint about the incident.
On January 9 Bahrain’s High Court of Appeals continued the trial of 20 medical staff who had been convicted by the National Safety Lower Court, a special military court, on September 29, 2011, following the government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011. The National Safety Lower Court found them guilty of charges that included forcibly taking over the Salmaniya Medical Complex and refusing treatment to patients based on sectarian affiliation. The court handed down sentences ranging from 5 years to 15 years in prison. On October 23, the Public Prosecution announced that in the appeals trial, they would not rely on the defendants’ confessions, many of which were allegedly extracted under torture, to prove their guilt.
However, at the January 9 session, the Public Prosecution declined to confirm before the court that it did not intend to introduce the doctors’ confessions into evidence, two of the defense lawyers, Jalila Said and Hameed al-Mulla, told Human Rights Watch.
The dubious confessions have been the strongest or only piece of evidence used against many of the defendants brought before the special military tribunals or civilian courts following the mid-February protests in Bahrain. Human Rights Watch has noted that under international and Bahraini law, the courts should exclude evidence that was not made available to defendants and their lawyers that the defendant could not challenge, or that was obtained under duress following torture or ill-treatment. Cases in which the remaining evidence is not sufficient for prosecution should be terminated, Human Rights Watch said.
The court also did not respond to the defendants’ requests to lift travel bans on the defendants and reinstate them in their jobs, Said and Mulla told Human Rights Watch. All of the defendants are provisionally free.
Calling the National Safety Court trials fundamentally unfair, Human Rights Watch urged the appeals court to reverse the convictions. Human Rights Watch urged prosecutors to drop all charges that were based solely on the defendants’ exercise of freedom of speech and assembly.
The next appeals court session is scheduled for March 19.
On January 8 border authorities refused entry to Richard Sollom, deputy director of the US-based Physicians for Human Rights, who had come to observe the January 9 session of the appeals trial of the medics.
The Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development, which prior to June 20 had been called the Ministry of Social Development, issued a statement saying that Sollom had sent a letter on January 4 requesting a meeting with officials and that the ministry had asked him to delay his visit until after February.
In November, representatives of Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups met with Fatima al-Balooshi, minister of human rights and social development and other officials from the ministry. The officials promised international nongovernmental organizations unrestricted access provided that they give advance notice.
Sollom told Human Rights Watch that in addition to his January 4 letter he had sent another letter on December 29 to the ministry requesting permission to attend the appeals trial of the medics.
“Denying entry to a highly regarded human rights organization indicates that the government is unwilling to give rights groups the promised access to visit Bahrain,” Whitson said.
Bahrain has experienced protests and unrest since pro-democracy demonstrations began in February 2011. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency in March and established special National Safety Courts that sentenced hundreds of people to heavy punishments, including the death penalty in some cases. The state of emergency was lifted in June but the special military courts continued to hear cases until early October.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), established by the king in June, published its findingsin November. It found a pattern of serious human rights violations such as the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of fair trial guarantees, and a severe lack of accountability for serious rights abuses.