Middle East

Bahraini detainee case highlights price of protest

Mohammed Mirza, prior to arrest in June 2012
Image caption Mohammed Mirza's family say he is a peaceful activist; police say he is a violent demonstrator

This is the story of a young man called Mohammed Mirza. The Bahrain police say he is a dangerous criminal. His family believe he is the victim of police brutality and a biased prosecution system.

Mohammed Mirza is a 22-year-old Shia Muslim from the village of al-Dair, close to the capital, Manama.

In February 2011, thousands of peaceful demonstrators occupied Pearl Roundabout, an iconic landmark in the city. They were demanding democratic reform and an end to discrimination.

Among the demonstrators was Mohammed Mirza.

In a country where the Shia majority has long complained of unfair treatment at the hands of its Sunni Muslim rulers, the al-Khalifas, many but by no means all of the Pearl Roundabout protesters were Shia.

The roundabout was cleared by force and in the months that followed, more than 50 people, including five police officers, died. Hundreds of Shia were arrested, thousands were arbitrarily sacked from their jobs and at least three were beaten to death in custody.

The brutality of the government's handling of the uprising sparked further demonstrations.

Marches and rallies in Manama were banned and peaceful protesters routinely attacked by the police.

In villages outside the city, Shia youth, many armed with Molotov cocktails, taunted and counter-attacked the riot police.

The response - heavy tear-gassing, stun grenades, birdshot blasts and arbitrary arrests - did not discriminate between combatants and the innocent.

Mohammed Mirza's family and his lawyers have always maintained that he was a non-violent protester. The police say otherwise.

In November 2011, according to his lawyers, he was convicted in absentia for illegal gathering and the vandalising of a police car by throwing stones. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

On 24 January 2012, he was again convicted of similar charges and received a second one-year sentence. In May he received a third sentence, this time of six months for illegal gathering.

All this time Mohammed Mirza was on the run.

He was finally caught in June of 2012 at his aunt's house in al-Dair, after he had been hit in the back with birdshot the previous week. His family insist that he was wounded after riot police opened fire on a peaceful rally in his home village.

The police version is that he was among a group of young rioters and the birdshot was fired by an officer only as a last resort when his life was threatened.

Charge after charge

Following his arrest, the family told the BBC, he was detained for six days before they had any word of his whereabouts, in a brief phone call he was allowed to make.

When they were able to see him, three weeks after his arrest, Mohammed Mirza told them he had been beaten around his head and face and on his back.

He said that those who had beaten him had deliberately targeted the entry wounds caused by the birdshot pellets still embedded in his back.

"They beat him and tortured him with electric shocks," a family member who saw him at the time told the BBC.

Image caption Human rights groups have condemned Bahrain's treatment of detained activists

"[The police] saw the wounds on his back and they focused the beatings on the wounds to make it more painful for him."

The Bahraini authorities say Mr Mirza was examined on 30 June and did not have any sign of injuries. They say neither Mr Mirza nor his lawyer complained at that time about being beaten or ill-treated.

Under duress, according to his lawyers, Mohammed Mirza confessed to crimes he had not committed. He spent nearly a year in Manama's Dry Dock remand centre.

Each time one of his cases came to an appeal court, the judge threw it out citing a lack of creditable evidence, according to one of his lawyers, Abdullah Zainaldeen.

Mr Zainaldeen told the BBC: "We go to court, the prosecution evidence is weak and so the case is thrown out, but then when I go to have him released from jail another charge is brought against him."

He called it a game, designed by the police and the public prosecutor's office to keep Mohammed Mirza imprisoned for crimes they had no real evidence he had actually committed.

However a government spokesperson refuted that claim.

"The credibility and impartiality of the Public Prosecution and judiciary in Bahrain remain intact," the spokesperson told the BBC.

Mohammed Mirza's family says that as a result of the beatings, he is in urgent need of medical attention. They say his hearing and sight have been affected and he remains in extreme pain as the birdshot pellets have yet to be removed.

"He needs a specialist urgently to see his back and a doctor for his hearing and his eyes. We asked many times and we sent many letters but after all this until now they still have not taken him to any specialists," a family member said.

The BBC brought his case to the attention of the Bahraini Chief of Police and to the police ombudsman and were told the authorities would investigate the family's claims.

But according to a lawyer familiar with the case, Mohammed Mirza has now been moved to Jau prison south of Manama to serve his latest sentence and has yet to receive appropriate medical care for his injuries.