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(This report covers the period January-December 1997)

Several hundred people were reportedly arrested during the year in connection with anti-government demonstrations. The vast majority of those arrested were Shi'a Muslims, among them prisoners of conscience, who were held for short periods and then released without charge. Eight religious and political leaders, all prisoners of conscience, remained held without charge or trial throughout the year. At least 36 political prisoners were convicted and sentenced to prison terms by the State Security Court following unfair trials. Torture and ill-treatment of detainees continued to be reported and two detainees died in circumstances suggesting that torture or medical neglect may have contributed to their deaths. Three people sentenced to death in 1996 remained under sentence of death. Several Bahraini nationals were banned from returning to the country.

Widespread anti-government protests, which erupted in December 1994, continued during the year (see Amnesty International Reports 1995 to 1997). As in previous years, protesters demanded the reinstatement of the National Assembly, which was dissolved by the Amir, Shaikh 'Issa bin Salman Al Khalifa, in 1975; the restoration of the country's 1973 constitution; and the release of political prisoners. The authorities responded with mass arrests of protesters and other suspected government opponents, especially in the Shi'a Muslim districts of Jidd Hafs, Sitra and al-Sanabis. Several arson attacks targeted restaurants, hotels and shops resulting in the deaths of seven foreign nationals. Among them were four Indian nationals, including two children, who died in June when a shop was set ablaze in al-Manama.

In August the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a resolution and expressed its “deep concern about the alleged gross and systematic violations of human rights in Bahrain”. It urged the government to comply with international human rights standards.

Several hundred people, mostly Shi'a Muslims, were reportedly arrested during the year in connection with anti-government protests. Most of them were detained for short periods and then released without charge. However, over a thousand detainees, including prisoners of conscience, were believed to remain held without charge or trial at the end of the year. Most were administratively detained under a state security law which permits the Minister of the Interior to detain individuals without charge or trial for up to three years. They included Shaikh 'Abd al-Amir al-Jamri and 'Abd al-Wahab Hussain 'Ali, who, along with six other prominent Shi'a Muslim religious and political leaders, were arrested in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997). All eight were prisoners of conscience. In February 'Ali Hassan Yusuf, a well-known Shi'a Muslim writer and poet, was arrested at his home in Jidd Hafs; he was a prisoner of conscience. His arrest and simultaneous dismissal from his job at the Ministry of Information were believed to be connected with the publication of a book of his poems entitled Isharat (Symbols), which was reportedly banned by the authorities for indirectly criticizing the government. He was released in April without charge or trial.

In March Sayyid Jalal Sayyid 'Alawi Sayyid Sharaf was arrested at his home in al-Duraz, reportedly on suspicion of transmitting information about the internal situation in Bahrain to persons abroad. He was believed to be held incommunicado in the al-Qal'a compound in al-Manama, where he was reportedly tortured during interrogation. By the end of the year, Sayyid Jalal Sayyid 'Alawi Sayyid Sharaf was said to be still held without charge or trial in al-Muharraq; he was reportedly allowed family visits.

A number of women were also arrested during the year in connection with the political unrest. In March four young women _ Ahlam al-Sayyid Mahdi Hassan al-Sitri, Amal Ahmad Rabi', Maryam Ahmad 'Ali Bilway and Laila 'Abd al-Nabi Rabi' _ were among a number of people arrested in the village of Sitra after participating in a non-violent demonstration held in commemoration of 'Issa Ahmad Qambar, who was executed in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997). The four women, all prisoners of conscience, were released without charge or trial after having reportedly been held incommunicado for over two weeks at a police station in Madinat 'Issa. Scores of minors and children were arrested, the majority during anti-government demonstrations.

In March trials began before the State Security Court of 81 defendants on charges including involvement in an alleged Iranian-backed coup to overthrow the government, membership of a prohibited organization and illegal possession of firearms. The trials, which were held in camera, were manifestly unfair. Twenty-two of the defendants were tried in absentia. Thirty-six were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 15 years. They included Jassim Hassan Mansur al-Khayyat and 'Ali Kadhem 'Abd 'Ali al-Mutaqawwi, who were sentenced to 12 and 15 years' imprisonment, respectively, for their alleged involvement in a conspiracy with a foreign state to carry out acts hostile to Bahrain; and Ja'far Hassan Sahwan and Ghazi Radhi al-'Abed, who had been forcibly returned to Bahrain from the United Arab Emirates in 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997), and who were each sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The remaining 23 were acquitted. Most of the defendants had been arrested in early 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997), and had been denied access to relatives and defence lawyers until the start of their trials. Some of them were convicted on the basis of uncorroborated confessions which had reportedly been extracted as a result of torture.

There were continuing reports of systematic torture and ill-treatment of detainees arrested in connection with the political unrest, especially during the initial period of interrogation in the custody of police or security personnel when torture was commonly used to extract information from detainees. Methods of torture reportedly included severe and sustained beatings, suspension by the limbs, and enforced standing or sleep deprivation for prolonged periods. Two detainees died in circumstances suggesting that torture or medical neglect may have contributed to their deaths. In June 'Abd al-Zahra' Ibrahim 'Abdullah was among a group of demonstrators arrested in al-Sanabis. He was reportedly subjected to severe beatings following his arrest and held incommunicado in al-Qal'a Prison. A few days later, he was transferred to al-Salmaniya Hospital in al-Manama where he died. His body was later handed over to his family for burial. A spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior reportedly announced that 'Abd al-Zahra' Ibrahim 'Abdullah died as a result of a “blood disorder” following his release. It was reported, however, that his body bore visible marks of severe beating.

In the same month, Shaikh 'Ali Mirza al-Nakkas, a blind Shi'a Muslim cleric from Bilad al-Qadim, died in custody in al-Qal'a Prison, where he had been held incommunicado since his arrest in April, on charges of incitement against the government. His body was reportedly buried by the security forces on the same day. A spokesman for the Minister of the Interior was reported to have attributed the death of Shaikh 'Ali Mirza al-Nakkas to respiratory problems. However, there were reports suggesting that medical neglect may have contributed to his death. No official investigations into these deaths in custody or into reports of torture or ill-treatment of other detainees were known to have been carried out.

Three prisoners remained under death sentence at the end of the year. 'Ali Ahmad 'Abdullah al-'Usfur, Yusuf Hussain 'Abd al-Baqi and Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim al-Kattab were sentenced to death after unfair trials before the State Security Court in July 1996 on charges of carrying out a fire-bomb attack on a restaurant in Sitra, which resulted in the death of seven Bangladeshi nationals (see Amnesty International Report 1997). At the end of the year their death sentences were still pending ratification by the Amir.

Several Bahraini nationals who had spent some time abroad were forcibly exiled after attempting to return to the country. In September, for example, a Shi'a Muslim family of five was reportedly denied entry to Bahrain on their return from Iran, where they had lived since 1985. The family _ 77-year-old Hajji 'Abd al-Hassan al-Seru and his four children, Baqir, Muhammad Jawad, 'Abd al-Hussain and Khadija _ were reportedly held for five days at the airport where they were interrogated by security officials, had their family passport renewed and were then forcibly exiled to the United Arab Emirates.

During the year, Amnesty International repeatedly called on the government to release prisoners of conscience and carry out independent investigations into reports of torture and ill-treatment. It appealed for the commutation of the outstanding death sentences passed after unfair trials in 1996 and urged the government to halt unfair trials before the State Security Court and conduct a review of legislation governing this court in the light of international standards. The government responded by rejecting Amnesty International's findings and failed to address the organization's concerns.

In April Amnesty International submitted information about its continuing concerns in Bahrain for UN review under a procedure established by Economic and Social Council Resolutions 728F/1503 for confidential consideration of communications about human rights violations.

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