Al-Wasat founder dies in custody in Bahrain

New York, April 15, 2011The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Bahraini authorities today to conduct an immediate and transparent investigation into the death in state custody of Karim Fakhrawi, left, founder and board member of Al-Wasat, the country’s premier independent daily.

Fakhrawi died Tuesday, a week after he was apparently taken into custody, according to news reports. Human rights defenders told CPJ that Fakhrawi had gone to a police station on April 5 to complain that authorities were about to bulldoze his house.

Earlier this month, the government accused Al-Wasat of “deliberate news fabrication and falsification.” Since then, the government has announced it will file criminal charges against three of the paper’s senior editors and has deported two other senior staffers.

Fakhrawi is one of numerous investors in Al-Wasat, local journalists told CPJ. He is also a book publisher, the owner of one of Bahrain’s biggest bookstores, and a member of Al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s chief opposition party.

Bahrain’s official news agency said on its Twitter feed that Fakhrawi died of kidney failure. Photographs published online, however, show a body identified as that of Fakhrawi with extensive cuts and bruises.

“The crackdown on dissent in Bahrain has taken a deadly turn with two deaths in custody in unexplained circumstances in less than a week,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The Bahraini authorities must clarify how they reached the conclusion that Karim Fakhrawi died of kidney failure when photographs show his body covered in cuts and bruises.”                                            

Online journalist Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri also died under mysterious circumstances while in government custody. Authorities claimed that al-Ashiri, who died April 9, had suffered complications from sickle cell anemia. Al-Ashiri was the first Bahraini journalist to die in direct relation to his work since CPJ began keeping detailed death records in 1992.

Elsewhere in the region:

In Libya, authorities released Al-Jazeera cameraman Ammar al-Hamdan on Thursday, the Qatar-based news station said. Al-Hamdan was detained in mid-March. An Al-Jazeera colleague, Kamel Atalua, remains in custody.

In Syria, authorities released Mohammad Dibo, a contributor to Jordanian and other international outlets, and the political blogger Ahmad Hadifa, regional news reports said.