MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain has arrested and beaten a prominent human rights activist and members of his family, a rights group said on Saturday, after the kingdom launched a sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Bahrain saw the worst sectarian clashes since the 1990s last month after protesters, emboldened by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets, prompting the government to impose martial law and invite in troops from Sunni-ruled neighbneighborsours.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was arrested with two sons-in-law, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said in a statement.
“They broke the front door to the house and then beat them severely” along with another man, the group said.
“Khawaja was beaten so severely that the blood stain is still visible on the staircase. And when his oldest daughter, Zainab, tried to intervene she was beaten as well.”
Khawaja lived in exile for 12 years before he was allowed to return under a general amnesty announced in 1999. He was imprisoned for political dissent in 2004 and later pardoned by the king.
Bahrain’s government has launched a crackdown against opposition activists, media and Shi’ite villages after it quelled weeks of pro-democracy protests.
A small group of youths gathered in a suburb of the capital, Manama, and were swiftly dispersed by police tear gas, witnesses said. Army units reinforced police checkpoints at Shi’ite villages near Manama, preventing protests, the witnesses said.
Mattar Mattar, a member of the largest Shi’ite opposition group, Wefaq, said in total 420 people had been detained, among them 20 women and 10 doctors. About 750 people had been dismissed from their jobs.
Workers at Bahrain Petroleum (Bapco) said on Saturday the company has also started to lay off Shi’ite workers who were absent during a strike called for by unions last month, following lay-offs at other state-owned companies.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a U.S.-based group that campaigns for medical staff working in crisis zones, said police forces still tightly controlled the country’s largest public hospital and continued to harass patients and staff.
“It’s absolutely shocking what is taking place. We’ve heard corroborating testimonies from numerous patients, hospital staff, nurses, physicians ... on serious violations of medical neutrality,” the group’s Deputy Director Richard Sollom told Reuters during a fact-finding mission in Bahrain.
Security forces occupied the Salmaniya Medical Complex on March 16, the day they cleared a square in Manama of pro-democracy protesters.
Sollom said during the crackdown, police and soldiers entered operating theatres and a number of doctors at the hospital had disappeared. He said three Shi’ite doctors were beaten by security forces at the hospital’s staff hostel this week, according to witness testimonies.
“This is such horrific abuse against physicians who are ethically required to be serving their patients,” he said.
Police had beaten patients on March 17 on the sixth floor of the hospital, to where police had directed protesters injured during the crackdown, he said. “This amounts to torture under the definition of the United Nations,” Sollom added.
Bahrain’s government denies there is torture but says all such accusations will be investigated.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has said hospitals in Bahrain had become places to be feared where wounds can identify people for arrest. Bahrain rejected those allegations as part of an “orchestrated campaign by the protest movement.”
Government officials have said Bahrain’s health system is operating normally and the Salmaniya hospital had been overrun with political activities directed against the government.
The clashes in Bahrain have killed at least 13 protesters and four police and PHR said security forces had used excessive force against protesters such as the use of live ammunition.
The Ministry of Interior said two detainees died at detention centers on Saturday. It said in a statement a man charged with attempting to kill a police officer on March 13 “created chaos” at the center and died after police tried to bring the situation under control.
A second man charged with promoting sectarianism died due to complications of sickle cell anemia, it said, the second sickle cell patient to die in police custody within a week.
PHR said the first patient had died last Sunday because he did not have appropriate access to medical care while in police custody.
Editing by Nick Macfie and Sophie Hares