16 February 2011

Journalists, peaceful protesters violently suppressed

Women and children were among protesters in Bahrain on the
Women and children were among protesters in Bahrain on the "Day of Rage", 14 February

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The ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has reinvigorated protests across the Arab region, resulting in clashes between security forces and protesters in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Yemen, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch and IFEX members in the region.

Responding to calls for a "Day of Rage", Bahrain's security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition rounds in a number of villages on 14 February to disperse protesters marching against the ruling Al Khalifa family's tight grip on power, alleged discrimination against the country's majority Shi'a population, and the continued detention of political prisoners, report the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Human Rights Watch. BCHR and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) have documented two deaths and more than 20 injuries as a result of attacks by the riot police.

In this video, riot police descend on a peaceful protest in Diraz Village:
According to BCHR, police later used vans and other vehicles to block main roads into the capital of Manama to prevent a mass gathering that organisers intended as an homage to Egypt's Tahrir Square. But they were not successful and protesters remained in central Manama today, 16 February.

"Despite foreign journalist present at the scene, more and more violence is being used at the moment. Officials need to be aware of the situation. International media must be told of this unfair, unjust situation of peaceful protesters being attacked by frequent violence," said BCHR.

Social media sites experienced unprecedented traffic in Bahrain with calls by BCHR, BYSHR and other rights and youth groups to join the demonstrations, a symbolic day in Bahrain as the anniversary of the country's 2002 constitution that led to pro-democracy reforms, including an elected parliament.

Meanwhile, 25 opposition activists will go back on trial on terrorism charges on 24 February, including bloggers Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace and Ali Abdulemam, and BCHR board member Mohamed Said.

Most of the specific charges relate to their political opinions and writings, including "spreading false information" and "inciting hatred of the government". They have not been permitted to meet privately with lawyers, and many allege they have been subjected to torture during interrogation.

They are among at least 450 Bahraini political activists, human rights defenders and Shiite religious figures and 110 children in jail, says BCHR.

For the Iranian opposition - not seen in big numbers on the streets in more than a year - Egypt's success has become a moment to re-establish itself. Tens of thousands of protesters clashed with security forces along some of Tehran's main boulevards on 14 February, which were covered in clouds of tear gas.

"Just days ago the Iranian government claimed to support the popular aspirations of millions of Tunisians and Egyptians who peacefully demanded an end to dictatorship," said Human Rights Watch. "Now Iranian security forces are using batons and teargas to disperse Iranians peacefully demonstrating in support of their Arab neighbours."

Iranian authorities had tried to prevent the protests - held in more than 35 cities and towns - before they even started, report CPJ. They announced they would deal forcefully with any protesters, brought Internet connections to a virtual halt to hamper the uploading of video and photographs from the protests, and put opposition leaders who had sought permission to hold an Egypt solidarity rally under house arrest, report CPJ and Human Rights Watch.

On 11 February, the BBC announced that its Persian Television service was being jammed from within Iran following coverage of the political unrest in Egypt.

And, over the past week, at least five journalists have been arrested, according to news reports.

Last week CPJ and more than 1,000 press freedom supporters signed a petition demanding that Iranian Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei free Iran's jailed journalists. According to CPJ, Iran is tied with China as being the world's leading jailer of journalists, with 34 behind bars. The petition was delivered to Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations.

In Yemen, meanwhile, the protests are about speeding the ouster of the U.S.-allied President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has promised he would step down in 2013. More than 1,000 people, including journalists, joined a fourth consecutive day of protests in the capital of Sana'a on 14 February - a day after police attacked anti-government marchers with sticks, daggers, stun guns and batons, says Human Rights Watch.

The Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate reported acts of violence and intimidation against journalists in the recent unrest, says CPJ. Men in plainclothes tried to kidnap journalist Samia al-Aghbry, says CPJ, but were prevented from doing so by a group of demonstrators – although not before she was knocked unconscious. Al-Aghbry is among the courageous women journalists at the forefront of the demonstrations in Yemen, along with Tawakkol Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC).

In Algeria, security forces prevented journalists from covering anti-government protests in major Algerian cities on 12 February. Kamel Amarni, secretary-general of the Algerian National Syndicate, told CPJ that security forces stopped and searched several journalists before confiscating their equipment. Internet service was shut down for several hours on the day and Facebook accounts deleted across the country.

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