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Family of UK-based activist arrested in Bahrain as secular opposition dissolved

Human Rights Watch described the arrest of Sayed Alwadei's family as a 'cowardly attempt' to intimidate the London-based activist
Sayed Alwadaei is handcuffed by police outside Downing Street (Reuters)

Human Rights Watch has accused Bahraini authorities of "attacking" the family of a leading UK-based Bahraini human rights activist, as the country moved to dissolve the leading secular opposition party.

The organisation said the Bahraini authorities had since Thursday detained the family members of Sayed Alwadaei, advocacy director for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), including his brother-in-law and mother-in-law.

"This looks like a cowardly attempt to break the resolve of an activist by attacking his family," HRW deputy Middle East director Eric Goldstein said.

"The Bahraini authorities forced Sayed Alwadaei into exile in Britain, where he's a thorn in their side. Since they can't touch him, they've resorted to threatening and harassing his wife, infant son, and in-laws," he said.

One of Alwadei's relatives told HRW that a group of masked men, accompanied by police officers, detained his 18-year-old brother-in law, Nazar Sayed Namaa Alwadaei, at a house in Jid Ali early on the morning of 2 March.

Then, on 5 March, police in civilian clothing went to the home of Nazar Sayed Namaa, Alwadaei’s mother, and Sayed Alwadaei’s mother-in-law, Hajar Mansoor Hasan, and summoned her to the Criminal Investigations Directorate.

HRW said the arrests appeared "to be part of a campaign of retribution in response to his human rights work".

In February, Alwadei's family was blocked from leaving Bahrain, just days after he was arrested at a protest in London against the Gulf state’s king visiting Downing Street.

Arrests at airport

Duaa Alwadaei, 25, and Yousif Alwadaei were both detained at Bahrain International Airport and questioned for seven hours as they tried to board a flight to London.

Alwadaei said his wife was left “terrified” after she was dragged across the floor of the airport.

He also claimed that she was beaten by two female police officers when she refused to accompany them into custody, and that she was interrogated over his role in the Downing Street protest, during which campaigners threw themselves at King Hamad's official car. He also said that she was threatened with further detention if she spoke out over her treatment.

A spokesman for the British foreign office said: "The UK monitors events in Bahrain closely. We continue to raise concerns about human rights with the Bahraini authorities both in private and in public.

"We encourage anyone with concerns about their treatment in detention to report these directly to the Ombudsman."

The allegations come as Bahrain's justice ministry announced it had filed a lawsuit to dissolve a secular opposition party months after the country's main Shia opposition party was banned. 

The justice ministry "has filed a lawsuit requesting the dissolution of the National Democratic Action Society (Waed), in light of Waed's serious violations of the principle of respect for the rule of law, its support of terrorism... and for its promotion of political change by force," according to a statement carried by state-run Bahrain News Agency. 

The Sunni left-leaning former head of Waed, Ibrahim Sharif, was freed in July after he served a one-year jail term for anti-government incitement.

He had already served four years of a five-year sentence over the 2011 protests before being released under a royal amnesty in June last year.

Bahrain's government has come under international criticism for criminalising dissent in the Shia-majority Gulf kingdom, home to the US Fifth Fleet.

Sunni authorities in Manama have accused its Shia neighbour Iran of stirring unrest in the kingdom. Iran has denied any involvement. 

A 2011 uprising seeking a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister was crushed with deadly force by authorities, and hundreds of Shia protesters have been arrested since then.

On Sunday, the upper house of parliament approved a constitutional amendment enabling military courts to try civilians accused of crimes that include terrorism, a concept with a broad legal definition.

Last year, a court ordered the dissolution of the country's main opposition party, al-Wefaq, for "harbouring terrorism" and its leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been behind bars since 2014. 

Shia al-Wefaq was the largest bloc in Bahrain's elected lower house of parliament. Its members resigned en masse in protest against the state crackdown on the 2011 protests.