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(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities are carrying out home raids and arbitrarily detaining opposition protesters in advance of the Formula 1 Grand Prix weekend of April 19 to 21, 2013, according to information from a variety of local sources.

The sources told Human Rights Watch that groups of masked, plainclothes police officers have been conducting targeted night-time and dawn raids in the towns around the motor racing circuit. Twenty people, including prominent anti-government protest leaders, have been arrested. Arresting officers have failed to produce arrest, search, or seizure warrants, the sources said, although these are required by Bahraini law. Officials have also denied those detained access to legal assistance during their initial formal interrogation by prosecutors.

“This latest crackdown and the way it’s being carried out raises new questions about the Bahraini authorities’ commitment to reform,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These raids and detentions suggestthat officials are more concerned with getting activists out of circulation for the Formula 1 race than with addressing the legitimate grievances that have led so many Bahrainis to take to the streets.”

Such police raids are not uncommon in Bahrain, which has been wracked by internal protests since February 2011. But since April 1, local sources told Human Rights Watch, the authorities have particularly targeted activists who live in towns close by or next to the track for the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix and who have led anti-government protests in the past. The police have conducted approximately 30 raids in Dar Khulaib, Shahrakan, Madinat, Hamad, and Karzakkan, towns located close to the F1 circuit and the roads leading to the capital, Manama.

Prosecutors have charged at least two of those arrested with crimes under national security and counterterrorism laws, and authorized their detention for another 60 days while investigations continue. Others, whom prosecutors have charged with participating in illegal gatherings, face another 45 days in detention. In addition to the raids, authorities have detained at least seven people at a series of temporary checkpoints they have established on roads leading to the F1 track. The father of one of those detained told Human Rights Watch that a group of about 10 masked, armed men in civilian clothes arrived at his family’s home in Madinat in the early morning hours of April 3. They said they were police and were looking for his 17-year-old son, whom they arrested and took away. But, the father said, they showed no identification and did not present either search or arrest warrants. Nine marked police cars arrived to back up the masked men, although no uniformed officers left their cars to assist in the arrest.

Local sources say that this raid was similar to others the police have conducted over recent days in localities close to the F1 circuit. In one of the latest, plainclothes police detained a prominent protest leader at his home in Shahrakan at 2 a.m. on April 8.

Protests around the country have increased as the time for the race nears. These have already resulted in serious injuries to anti-government demonstrators. On April 6, security forces shot 16-year-old Hussain Khadem in the head with a teargas canister during a protest in the town of Sitra; the incident was filmed and posted on the Internet. Khadem is reported to be in stable condition in a hospital awaiting surgery.

Another demonstrator, Hussain Khalil, was also struck by a teargas canister fired by police, but was injured less seriously. He told a local activist that police officers arrested him, punched, and kicked him, and took him to Sitra police station before they allowed him to receive medical attention, then tried to get him to sign a statement saying he had been beaten by his fellow protesters. Sources who have spoken to Khalil told Human Rights Watch that he is now under guard in a hospital.

Article 14 (1) of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, to which Bahrain is party, states that, “No one shall be arrested, searched or detained without a legal warrant.” The Committee on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, a treaty to which Bahrain has also acceded, emphasizes the importance of ensuring that anyone arrested has access to a lawyer in the period immediately following their arrest, describing it is a “fundamental safeguard against ill-treatment.”

“The Bahraini authorities have a responsibility to ensure the safety of those attending the Formula 1 Grand Prix, but that should not extend to arresting people for exercising their legitimate rights to free speech and assembly, nor to using disproportionate force against those who engage in violent protests,” Whitson said. “Night-time raids of targeted people by masked officers who show neither arrest nor search warrants appear intended to intimidate them, their families and their supporters.”

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