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BAHRAIN: Activists tortured before trial, rights group alleges

May 11, 2011 |  6:39 am

Lkvkuhnc A pro-democracy activist in Bahrain appeared to have been beaten and possibly tortured before he appeared in court this week, according to the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch.

Abdulhadi Khawaja was one of 14 defendants, mostly opposition leaders in the Persian Gulf state, who were charged with seeking to “topple the regime forcibly in collaboration with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country,“ Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday. Seven others were charged in absentia.

When Khawaja's wife and daughter spoke with him briefly after he appeared  in court Sunday, the first time they had seen him since his arrest April 9, he told them he had suffered four fractures to his face, including one to his jaw that required four hours of surgery.

Timeline: Repression in Bahrain

Khawaja's daughter Maryam told Human Rights Watch that her mother and sister met with him for 10 minutes after the initial hearing.

“She said her father had gone on a hunger strike to protest his ill treatment and his lack of access to a lawyer," according to a statement released by Human Rights Watch. “She also said that he told his wife and daughter that he had been tortured, but could not describe details because the family meetings took place in the presence of security guards."

The rights group said it had previously received “credible reports" that Khawaja had been admitted to Bahrain Defense Force Hospital for six days to be treated for his injuries.

“One person who claimed to have seen him said he was at that point unrecognizable as a result of apparent beatings in detention," the statement said.

Two other detainees entered court limping on Sunday, the rights group said.

“When the defendants asked to speak about the abuse they allegedly experienced in detention, security forces forcibly removed them from court," the statement said.

Bahrain is a party to the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits torture, and its leaders have ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Bahraini authorities denied that Khawaja had been hospitalized or that any of the other detainees had been tortured.

The state-run Bahrian News Agency called the reports “fabricated, politically motivated news."

"The genuine facts that we received from the Military Hospital and the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the largest hospitals in the country, are that neither hospital has admitted or treated any of the detainees. The hospitals stated that the rumours about the admissions and hospitalization were untrue," the report said, quoting official Bahraini sources.

Bahrain's police and military have operated under a “state of national safety" since March 15. A military prosecutor charged the 14 dissidents, and the trial is being overseen by a military judge, who postponed the next hearing until May 12, the rights group said, to give the defendants time to find lawyers and prepare their cases.

They stand accused of crimes that include, among other things, managing terrorist groups for the overthrow of the monarchy, working for a foreign country against the kingdom, insulting the army, broadcasting false news, inciting hatred and protesting without a permit, according to the Bahrain News Agency.

King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa has said he intends to end a three-month period of martial law, instituted amid anti-government protests, two weeks early, on June 1.

Human Rights Watch called on Bahrain's leaders in the meantime to suspend prosecution of civilians in special military courts, to grant them access to relatives and medical care and to set up an impartial commission to investigate allegations of torture.

“Torture or ill treatment is a serious crime, and Bahraini officials who did or authorized this treatment need to be held accountable," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director.


Timeline: Repression in Bahrain

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo

Photo: A vendor arranges newspapers in Hamad Town, Bahrain, on May 8, 2011. Al-Ayam newspaper (center) published pictures of some of the political activists accused by a military prosecutor of seeking to overthrow the Persian Gulf nation's ruling monarchy in a widening crackdown on a pro-reform uprising led by the country's Shiite majority. Credit: Hasan Jamali / Associated Press