(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities are apparently targeting the family members of a prominent Bahraini activist in retribution for his human rights work, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since March 2, 2017, authorities have detained the brother-in-law and mother-in-law of Sayed al-Wadaei, a United Kingdom-based Bahraini human rights activist who has accused the Bahraini authorities, including senior members of the ruling Al Khalifa family, of serious human rights abuses. Sayed al-Wadaei’s wife, Duaa, told Human Rights Watch in October that a senior official had referred to her husband as “an animal” and asked, menacingly during an interrogation at Bahrain airport, “Where shall I go first, shall I go to his family or your family?”

Hajar Mansoor Hasan (second from right), apparently targeted by authorities in retribution for the human rights work of her son-in-law, Sayed al-Wadaei. Also pictured are Hasan’s children, aged 13 and 11, and mother, 90. 

© 2017 Private

“This looks like a cowardly attempt to break the resolve of an activist by attacking his family,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Bahraini authorities forced Sayed al-Wadaei into exile in Britain, where he’s a thorn in their side. Since they can’t touch him, they’ve resorted to threatening and harassing his wife, infant son, and in-laws.”

In 2012, the UK Home Office granted Sayed al-Wadaei leave to remain in the UK, three weeks after he fled Bahrain, where he said police had beaten and tortured him in the aftermath of anti-government protests in 2011. In 2013, he set up the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which has publicly accused senior members of Bahrain’s royal family of involvement in serious human rights abuses, including Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa.

A relative told Human Rights Watch that a large group of masked men, accompanied by police officers, detained Sayed al-Wadaei’s 18-year-old brother-in law, Nazar Sayed Namaa al-Wadaei, at a house in Jid Ali at approximately 3:40 a.m. on March 2. He called his family two hours later to say he was at the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID). At approximately 1 p.m. on March 5, police in civilian clothes went to the home of Nazar Sayed Namaa al-Wadaei’s mother and Sayed al-Wadaei’s mother-in-law, Hajar Mansoor Hasan, and summoned her to the CID. They refused to explain the basis for the summons. Hasan cares for her 90-year-old mother and two children. Prior to being taken into custody at the CID, Hasan told a family member that her son, Nazar Sayed Namaa al-Wadaei, had called her to say that CID officers had tortured him and forced him to implicate other relatives in wrongdoing.

In a report on Bahrain issued in November 2015, Human Rights Watch identified a general pattern of detainee abuse, including torture, in CID facilities.

The detention of Sayed al-Wadaei’s in-laws appears to be part of a campaign of retribution in response to his human rights work. Nazar Sayed Namaa al-Wadaei and Hasan were in CID custody at the time of writing.

Duaa al-Wadaei told Human Rights Watch that senior Bahraini officials threatened her husband and both their families during a seven-hour interrogation at Manama airport on October 27, 2016. Speaking to Human Rights Watch by telephone the day after the incident, she said that she was checking in for a London-bound flight with the couple’s 2-year-old son when airport officials asked her to accompany them for a search. Officers took her to a private room, removed her headscarf and shoes, and searched her bag and her son’s stroller. When officers then tried to take her to another part of the airport, she refused to accompany them and sat down in the duty-free area with her son in her arms and said she would no longer cooperate unless officers explained where they were taking her and why. Officers then forcibly separated her from her son, she said, and dragged her by her wrists until she stood up and accompanied them to an interrogation room.

A seven-hour interrogation followed, Duaa al-Wadaei told Human Rights Watch, in which an official asked her about her husband’s work, threatened to revoke her family’s commercial licenses in Bahrain, informed her she was subject to a travel ban, and threatened her husband. She said the officer, who appeared to be a senior official, told her: “Deliver this message to your husband – I will get him,” as she left the interrogation.

Authorities forced Duaa al-Wadaei and her son to miss that flight but allowed them to leave Bahrain on November 1. However, upon arriving in the UK, she discovered officers had charged her with assaulting a police officer.

The airport interrogation occurred hours after Sayed al-Wadaei had protested the King of Bahrain’s visit to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May. Police outside 10 Downing Street briefly detained Sayed al-Wadaei but did not charge him.

An official from the Bahrain embassy in London sent an email to a journalist on October 29, in response to questions about the airport interrogation. It states that “precautionary security measures were necessary” on the basis of “the history of Mr al-Wadaei being involved in and supporting terrorist acts, as well as the number of weapons caches and explosive materials having been found in the Kingdom.” On November 1, the Bahrain embassy in the UK issued statements on social media about the incident and said that Duaa al-Wadaei “failed to cooperate with airport security request for info and assaulted a female police officer while being interviewed.”

“Bahrain should tackle the serious human rights abuses identified by Sayed al-Wadaei instead of punishing the messenger and his extended family,” said Goldstein.