Bahrain: At least one dead and hundreds injured as government violently cracks down on opposition

Updates

May 24: The Bahraini authorities have stated that 5 men were killed in the violent crackdown on Duraz.

Today’s disturbing developments again show the consequences of rampant impunity enjoyed by the security forces. There must be a prompt, independent investigation and those responsible for unlawful killing and other arbitrary or abusive force must be prosecuted. The authorities must rein in the security forces, order that they strictly comply with international standards on police use of force, and ensure the right to peaceful protest is protected
Samah Hadid, Director of Campaigns, Middle East at Amnesty International

 

The Bahraini security forces used excessive force against protesters in the village of Duraz, the majority of whom were peaceful, as part of an ongoing crack down on the village which has been under siege by the authorities for 11 months, according to evidence uncovered by Amnesty International.

At least one person has been killed and hundreds injured as security forces fired birdshot from shotguns and teargas against protesters. According to Amnesty’s sources, during the violent clashes, the houses surrounding that of leading Shi’a spiritual leader Sheikh Issa Qassem were raided and people inside arrested.

“Today’s disturbing developments again show the consequences of rampant impunity enjoyed by the security forces. There must be a prompt, independent investigation and those responsible for unlawful killing and other arbitrary or abusive force must be prosecuted. The authorities must rein in the security forces, order that they strictly comply with international standards on police use of force, and ensure the right to peaceful protest is protected,” said Samah Hadid, Director of Campaigns, Middle East at Amnesty International

“Our information indicates that police attacked what started out as a peaceful demonstration. International standards require that law enforcement must not use lethal force unless unavoidable to protect against a threat to life or risk of serious injury. ”

During the early hours of 23 May, hundreds of armoured vehicles and personnel carriers encircled the town of Duraz, home to Sheikh Issa Qassem,. At around 00:30, mosques in the area used loud speakers to call on people to march towards Sheikh Issa Qassem’s house. The house had been the location of a continuous sit-in since June 2016, following the government’s decision to arbitrarily revoke Sheikh Issa Qassem’s nationality and block all entrances to Duraz, except for two roads which have checkpoints at which security forces turn away anyone who is not a resident of the village.

An eyewitness who spoke to Amnesty International said she had seen hundreds of Ministry of Interior security vehicles and around 20 National Security vehicles moving towards Sheikh Issa Qassem’s house. At 07:00, hundreds marched peacefully in Duraz to protest, before clashes with security forces began at around 08:00. Violent clashes are still ongoing in the area. Those trying to leave Duraz are reportedly being shot at by security forces.

At least one man, 39 year old Mohamed Kazem Mohsen Zayn al-Deen, who is an environmental activist, died from injuries to his head caused by birdshot. According to one source he, may have been trying to block security forces from entering Sheikh Issa Qassem’s house when he was shot. Another man was also taken to hospital with life threatening injuries to his stomach, also resulting from birdshot. Four others have sustained serious injuries and hundreds more have been injured. According to sources on the ground, those who are not severely injured are not going to hospital out of fear that they would be arrested and are instead choosing to receive assistance from first aid trained volunteers.

Amnesty International spoke to witnesses who said that they had seen four helicopters in Duraz from which tear gas was fired at protesters. One eyewitness said that there was more tear gas than she had ever seen before, “You cannot open the windows without it coming in”.

Other witnesses said that helicopters fired tear gas at protesters in the neighbouring village of Bani Jamra and that some protesters in that village were injured by birdshot. At least seven other villages have seen protests.

Amnesty International has also verified footage of one security officer in Duraz holding a Heckler & Koch MP-5 9mm submachine guns, and of other officers carrying shotguns and has verified other footage of another officer carrying a firearm while raiding a house in Duraz.

At around 12:40pm today, Amnesty International received reports that security officers had surrounded Sheikh Issa Qassem’s house and surrounding houses and fired tear gas inside before raiding it. A barbed wire cordon was erected around the house and 50 people were arrested according to a statement by the Ministry of Interior. Sheikh Issa Qassem is not currently amongst those detained however there are fears that authorities may detain and forcibly expel him from the country, as they have done to others whose nationality was arbitrarily revoked in 2015 and 2016

Background:

On Sunday May 21, Sheikh Issa Qassem was sentenced to one year in prison on charges of “money laundering and raising public funds without obtaining a licence”, with the sentence being suspended for three years. This charge is in connection with his receipt of khums, a religious obligation for Shi’a Muslims to donate a fifth of their yearly profits to their spiritual leader or his representative, who, in turn, distributes it to the poor. This has been a custom practiced by the Shi’a community in Bahrain for centuries. Sheikh Issa Qassem is the spiritual leader of the Al Wefaq opposition party that was dissolved in July 2016.

There are calls for protestors to march towards Duraz and attempt to break the blockade by security forces which has been in place since June 2016. The situation remains highly volatile.

The government of Bahrain has been systematically crushing all those who dare speak out against it since Bahrain’s uprising in 2011. The country has been on the edge of a human rights crisis since January 2017, following the execution of three men which sparked protests in over 20 villages, including Duraz, with hundreds taking part. Security forces used tear gas and shotguns firing birdshot against protesters and, in some cases, less-lethal riot control ammunition and live ammunition. Amnesty International verified video footage which showed armed men wearing black balaclavas firing Benelli semi-automatic shotguns during clashes in Duraz on 26 January 2017. That morning, 18 year old Mustapha Hamdan was shot in the head with a live bullet near the back of Sheikh Issa Qassem’s home. He died of his injuries on 24 March.