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(Beirut) – Bahrain’s government should address serious and systematic abuses that officials and members of its security forces committed during a widespread crackdown on anti-government protests, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2012. The authorities should release hundreds of people convicted of crimes solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and ensure that security forces stop using excessive force against protesters. Clashes between security forces and protesters have claimed the lives of more than 45 people.

Partly inspired by pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrainis took to the streets calling for greater political rights in February 2011. Hundreds of Bahrainis camped in Pearl Roundabout in Manama, which immediately became the symbol of the movement. On February 14, authorities used lethal force to suppress peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Pearl Roundabout, killing one protester and wounding many more. Before the year was out, hundreds of people accused of involvement with the protests had been sentenced to prison in unfair trials, many in military courts.

“Since the crackdown on the protests authorities have violently suppressed peaceful demonstrations and silenced dissident voices through arrests, torture, and job dismissals,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But people in Bahrain, and throughout the region, have made it clear that violent suppression isn’t going to make the issues go away. People want their rights.”

In the 676-page World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assesses progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

In mid-March King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency that gave sweeping power to security and military forces to end protests. King Hamad also established special military courts that sentenced more than 250 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 until October to try civilians associated with the protest movement.

In the wake of the crackdown, public and military prosecutions brought various charges against demonstrators and others who supported the protesters. The charges included “inciting hatred against the regime,” participating in “illegal” demonstrations, “spreading false news,” and “harming the reputation” of the country. Opposition leaders, rights activists, and professional people were among those convicted.

Most of the defendants were held for weeks deprived of contact with lawyers and family members and then sentenced to long jail terms on political charges in unfair trials, Human Rights Watch said.

Employers in both the public and private sectors dismissed or suspended more than 2,500 workers during the first half of 2011. In most cases the stated reason for dismissal was absence from work during the protests, but the dismissals appear to have been reprisals for participating in the demonstrations or supporting them. Many dismissed employees have since been reinstated, but many say they have been assigned to different jobs and obliged to sign a pledge of allegiance to authorities.

Most of the 45 people killed in demonstration-related incidents were civilians. At least five deaths were attributed to torture, according to the report issued in November 2011 by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The commission was established by King Hamad and headed by the Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni.

The BICI found a pattern of serious human rights abuses such as the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and denial of fair trial guarantees.

Following the BICI report authorities promised to implement the commission’s recommendations. Among them were to review “in ordinary courts all convictions and sentences rendered by the National Security Courts where fundamental principles of a fair trial ... were not respected” and to investigate the deaths and allegations of torture that have been attributed to the security forces.

Authorities claim that 48 officers are being investigated for the deaths and allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees. However they have not provided any information on the identities and ranks of those officers and whether there are any high ranking security officials among them.

“Justice can only be served by transparent and impartial investigations into the deaths and allegations of torture by security forces and prosecution those responsible regardless of their ranks,” Stork said. “That would send a message that Bahrain will not grant impunity for human rights violations. 

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