An 11-year-old boy is to stand trial in Bahrain, accused of taking part in an illegal gathering and blocking a road, after spending a month in prison in what human rights organisations say is a campaign against children by the authorities.
Ali Hasan said he was playing in the street with two other children his own age when he was approached by plainclothes policemen in a car. He said the two other boys ran off, but a policeman shouted that he would shoot Ali with a shotgun if he tried to escape.
"Ali is accused of taking part in an illegal gathering, which in Bahrain means the gathering of more than five people," his lawyer, Shahzalan Khamees, said. He is also accused of blocking a road with a garbage skip, but this would have been impossible because the skip "is so heavy that you would need two grown men to lift it", she said. Human rights violations and the absence of any real reforms by the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain, which bloodily crushed the pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority on the island last year, is embarrassing the US and UK governments; their tolerance for repression in Bahrain, a former British possession that is the base for the US Fifth Fleet, makes their concern for human rights in Syria and Libya look hypocritical and self-serving.
Ali, who was freed yesterday pending his trial later this month, was detained on 14 May near his home in al-Bilad al-Qadeem, a suburb of the Bahraini capital, Manama. Ms Khamees said that upon being arrested he was moved around for four hours between different police stations to frighten and disorientate him. She said he was then interrogated by the police and "asked to give the names of boys in the area where he lived". This was presumably an attempt by the authorities to identify teenagers taking part in the protests that erupt frequently in Shia districts in Bahrain.
"He is very sad all the time," Ms Khamees said. "All he says is 'I want to go home. I want my mother'. He is frightened and says they are going to punish him. He is only a child."
The Bahraini authorities did not respond yesterday to queries about the case from The Independent. But earlier the government information office in Manama issued a statement saying "the juvenile is receiving social care and tutoring at the centre. He completed his last exam of the sixth-grade level on Thursday". The government claims that Ali is 12 rather than an 11-year-old. The office said Ali is accused of burning tyres at a roadblock, but his lawyer said the police claim he blocked the road with a large container in which people place rubbish for collection.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, whose president Nabeel Rajab was arrested again last week for tweeting critical comments about the government, said it is concerned about the targeting of children. It said 60 children are detained and three of them have received sentences of 15 years' imprisonment.
Mr Rajab is accused of tweeting six comments calling for Bahrain's Prime Minister of the past 40 years, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, to step down and alleging corruption.
Ms Khamees said she has handled cases where seven- and eight-year-olds have been questioned by the police, but they have never been detained. She said it is common for the authorities to detain 14- and 15-year-olds. Ali al-Aswad, a former MP with the opposition al-Wifaq party, said it is common for Bahraini children to attend protests with their families.