Bahrain must release activist dragged away from peaceful protest

The Bahrain authorities must release a prominent activist dragged away along the ground in handcuffs from a peaceful protest, Amnesty International said today.  Blogger and activist Zainab al-Khawaja, whose father and husband are both in prison in the aftermath of popular protests this year, has been charged with taking part in an illegal public gathering, showing contempt of the regime and assaulting a police officer. Video and photographs of her sitting in protest on her own at a roundabout on 15 December, then being handcuffed and dragged along the ground by the handcuffs into a police car contradict the contention that she assaulted the arresting officer.“The Bahraini authorities must immediately release Zainab Al-Khawaja and Ma’suma Sayyid Sharaf, and drop the specious charges against them,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the North Africa and the Middle East Programme.    Amnesty International has received reports that al-Khawaja was beaten by police officers while out of sight of cameras, and a friend of the activist, Ma’suma Sayyid Sharaf, was arrested while trying to intervene. Sharaf is also being held under the same charges.   “Zainab al-Khawaja’s arrest at all demonstrates the authorities’ utter contempt of freedom of expression and peaceful protest and puts into question the will of the Bahraini authorities to take seriously the findings of  the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.  The anti-government sit-in at the roundabout was organized by several women on the eve of celebrations marking Bahrain’s national day (16 December).  After the police used teargas and sound bombs, the other protesters dispersed but al-Khawaja, a seasoned demonstrator, did not move.  After the arrest, al-Khawaja was taken to al-Budaiye’ police station on the outskirts of Manama, where she was reportedly beaten further. Zainab al-Khawaja, who blogs and tweets under the name ‘Angry Arabiya’, is the daughter of prominent human rights and opposition activist Abdelhadi al-Khawaja. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court in June in a politically motivated trial of 21 opposition activists, seven of whom were tried in absentia. He has alleged that he was severely tortured in detention, that his jaw was shattered, and that he was threatened with rape. “Given the horrendous mistreatment of her father Abdelhadi al-Khawaja, we have grave fears for Zainab’s safety while she is in detention,” said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui. Al-Khawaja’s lawyer told Amnesty International that she is being held in detention in ‘Issa Town, South-west of Manama, and no visitors have been permitted.  Both she and Sharaf were questioned at the Public Prosecutor’s Office after their arrest until 5:00am on 16 December.They were both referred to a doctor on Saturday at the request of lawyers, with Zainab reportedly suffering bruising on her arms and hands, and experiencing headaches from being beaten in the head.The two women will reportedly appear before a judge in the coming days.The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report released in November and welcomed by the King of Bahrain was deeply critical of the authorities’ handling of demonstrations this February and March, and of excessive force and other abuses against peaceful demonstrators in the following months. “The Bahraini authorities must demonstrate that the report of the Commission is more than a public relation exercise and start implementing the recommendations of the report. Foremost they need to start taking the rights of protesters seriously,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.