Bahrain: Violent crackdown on protesters on Budaiya Street

The fifteenth of December marked the start of #OccupyBudaiya. Bahrainis have taken to Budaiya Street in Manama, the capital city, to express discontent with the government’s actions following the reading of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. For four days, protesters clashed with riot police and security officials. Bahraini activist Asma Darwish, 21, who has been actively protesting since the start of protests in February, told Index that the demonstrations have all been “peaceful.” According to Darwish, when she was at Budaiya Street on 15 December, police began firing tear gas at herself and a few other individuals, including the now detained activist Zainab Al-Khawaja (@angryarabiya) , and journalists Lauren Bohn and Adam Ellick. She said that they were merely “taking photos” outside of a Costa coffee shop known as a meeting point for opposition members, when police opened fire on the café, filling it with tear gas and making it “very difficult to breathe”. On the same day, protester Ali Al-Ghassab was run over during protests, and the Ministry of Interior has denied responsibility for his death. On the same day, Al-Khawaja was also arrested while peacefully protesting.

In honour of Bahrain’s National Day on 16 December, King Hamad delivered a speech, in which he spoke about the BICI report, and emphasised the government’s “commitment to implementing its recommendations”. He also said that the BICI also “generated popular satisfaction.”  On the same day, many gathered for the funeral of Al-Ghassab, and to protest on Budaiya Street again. According to an eyewitness account, the protests were “peaceful,” and did not even involve road blocks, which has been a major criticism of opposition tactics in the past. While protesters peacefully gathered, security forces began breaking up the crowds through the use of force — using batons to beat protesters, and firing “tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and bird shotgun pellets” on the crowd. The brutal crackdown on protesters since the start of the latest round of demonstrations has resulted in countless injuries, and many have posted images and videos of clouds of tear gas, injuries, and protests on Twitter. Bahrain is now approaching 10 months of unrest; protests began in February of this year.

Meanwhile, Al-Khawaja, who was scheduled to stand trial today, could face up to two years in prison, according to her lawyer. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights is reporting that Al-Khawaja is currently being held in a cell with 40 other women and one shared bathroom, and has also been “verbally harassed” and threatened by officials, who have told her that she would only be able to see her two-year-old daughter once a week. Al-Khawaja is the daughter of prominent activist Abdulhady Al-Khawaja, who was arrested in April and is currently serving a life sentence. In  an open letter to the international human rights community, Darwish appealed to organisations to assist in releasing her fellow activist, and condemned the physical assault of Al-Khawaja during her arrest, and said that her ill-treatment in public was “worrisome”. Her arrest, as well as the crackdown on protesters has been met with outrage from the international community, as continued brutality and the arrest of peaceful protesters does not seem to line up with the government’s promises of a renewed future, and many organisations have called for her release, as well as that of other peaceful protesters.

The Bahraini government has called for the fast-tracking of the recommendations of the commission, but hundreds remain in prison for exercising their right to express their political views. One of the commissioners, Sir Nigel Rodley, former UN special rapporteur on torture, told Human Rights Watch that those arrested for peacefully expressed their right to “freedom of expression and assembly,” and called for the government to review convictions, commute the sentences of those merely exercising their “basic political rights,” and that commissioners intended that they be released, and their criminal records be expunged of charges.