Human Rights Watch

(Washington, July 22, 2005) — The Bahraini government should immediately investigate security personnel who severely beat people assembling to monitor or participate in a demonstration, Human Rights Watch said today.

The attack occurred on July 15 when police moved to prevent people from gathering to protest the state budget for 2005-2006, just passed by the National Assembly. The organizers of the protest claimed that the measure failed to include provisions for unemployed workers. Unemployment is a major problem in Bahrain.

Among those attacked and injured by police were prominent human rights activists `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab, president and vice-president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights respectively, and labor rights activist `Abbas al-`Umran. Rajab told Human Rights Watch that at least 30 persons required hospital treatment for injuries they had sustained.

“Bahrain has been a poster child for political reform in the Middle East, but police attacks like this one are a worrisome trend,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “Bahrain is growing more repressive in response to peaceful political activism.”

Rajab told Human Rights Watch that he was part of a group of 10 men and five women who had come to monitor the planned march from Manama’s Al-Fatah mosque to the National Assembly building some two kilometers away. He said police attacked them before protesters had assembled.

“I approached one officer in charge, Salah Abu Ghais, and told him we were there to monitor the demonstrators and the police,” Rajab said.

I asked him to let us know if they felt the need to make any arrests. “I did not come to arrest anybody,” he said. Then he told the men with him to “look after them”—meaning us. They pulled black masks over their faces and started hitting us with their batons. They knew who we were. They knew my name.

The police made no arrests in connection with the demonstration.

Rajab said that the Public Committee of the Unemployed, the sponsors of the planned demonstration, had earlier notified the authorities of their plans. The committee received no direct response, but the authorities let it be known in remarks to the press, mostly government-controlled, that the demonstration would not be allowed.

Another eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that he was passing the scene in a car and took photos of the police attacking the group of monitors. He said the police then stopped the car and confiscated the camera. This person told Human Rights Watch that when he returned to the scene a few minutes later he saw about 10 police pull open the doors of a car, pull out the occupants and beat them with batons.

Hassan `Abd al-Nabi, an activist with the Public Committee for the Unemployed, told Human Rights Watch that security forces pulled him and others from a car as they approached the demonstration assembly point, beat them with batons, and told them to leave the area and not return. `Abd al-Nabi said he and his companions subsequently filed complaints with the Public Prosecutor. The next day, he said, a plainclothes security officer approached him as he was leaving his home and asked him to come with him. When `Abd al-Nabi declined, the man forced him into an unmarked black GMC van, where he was hooded and driven to an unknown location. There, he said, several officers beat him and threatened further harm if he continued his activities with the committee. They then dropped him off on a main road. After visiting a hospital for treatment, he returned home to find that the premises had been searched and trashed.

In recent months, the government has taken measures to halt the activities of several organizations critical of government policies. On July 4, the government suspended for 45 days the Islamic Action Society, a legally recognized group, after speakers at a public event sponsored by the society the previous week made remarks critical of the government.

In September 2004, the government ordered the closure of the independent Bahrain Center for Human Rights, after `Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, the group’s president, publicly criticized Prime Minister Khalifa Al Khalifa. In early June, Social Affairs Minister Fatima al-Balushi told the press that she had written to the Public Prosecutor to urge legal action against al-Khawaja and Rajab, who continued to organize activities using the Center’s name.

To view the photos of two of the victims, please click here.