Middle East

Bahrain urged to free jailed activists to end unrest

Zainab al-Khawaja at a protest in Manama (18 April 2012)
The detention of activists like Zainab al-Khawaja is causing more tension on the streets, says HRW

A leading human rights organisation has called for the release of Bahrain's "political prisoners" to help stop escalating violence.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the imprisonment of activists will "keep the country imprisoned in conflict".

The Gulf island kingdom, home to the US Fifth fleet, has suffered more than two years of unrest.

Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family but the majority population is Shia.

Shia have long complained of discrimination and have led the call for constitutional change since pro-democracy protests erupted in February 2011

Many leading Shia activists are currently in jail.

Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division told the BBC: "Releasing the activists would be a signal that the government is serious about reform, that the people could have faith in a process of dialogue.

"Without that faith the violence will continue."

Among the imprisoned activists are the human rights campaigners Nabeel Rajab, jailed for three years, and Zainab al-Khawaja who is serving a three-month sentence.

Ms Khawaja's father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is among eight opposition figures sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly plotting to overthrow the state.

They were convicted on evidence widely believed to have been secured under torture.

In January, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issued a statement condemning "the continued harassment and imprisonment of persons exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in Bahrain".

The statement also made reference to "the lack of guaranteed due process" in the trials of 13 political activists, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

Hunger strikes

Maryam al-Khawaja, Mr Khawaja's younger daughter, told the BBC that both her father and her sister had started hunger strikes on Monday in protest at what she called continued human rights violations in the country and the treatment of detained activists.

Commenting on the escalating violence, she said that peaceful activists were "losing the footing we stand on".

"They [jailed human rights activists] need to be out. They advocate non-violence. If you make peaceful protest impossible, you make violence inevitable"

Dismissing the ongoing dialogue facilitated by the government as having "no consequence on the ground", she said that Bahrain's Western allies needed to bring more pressure to bear.

"A vacuum is being created and it is being filled more and more by the violence. It is a very dangerous situation."

On 14 February 2011, peaceful protesters took over Pearl Roundabout, an iconic landmark in the capital, Manama. Three days later security forces cleared the site using tear gas, batons and birdshot.

As violence escalated 35 people, including five police officers, were killed, hundreds more were hurt and thousands jailed in February and March 2011.

Since then, opposition and human rights activists say more than 50 people have died, a figure which the government disputes.