By Frederik Richter
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain has arrested and beaten a prominent human rights activist and members of his family, a rights group said on Saturday, after the kingdom launched a sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Bahrain saw the worst sectarian clashes since the 1990s last month after protesters, emboldened by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets, prompting the government to impose martial law and invite in troops from Sunni-ruled neighbors.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was arrested with two sons-in-law, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said in a statement.
"They broke the front door to the house and then beat them severely" along with another man, the group said, adding:
"... al-Khawaja was beaten so severely that the blood stain is still visible on the staircase. And when his oldest daughter, Zainab, tried to intervene she was beaten as well."
Al-Khawaja lived in exile for 12 years before he was allowed to return under a general amnesty. He was imprisoned for political dissent in 2004 and later pardoned by the king.
Bahrain's government has launched a crackdown against opposition activists, media and Shi'ite villages after it quelled weeks of pro-democracy protests.
Security forces also occupied Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country's largest public hospital, on March 16, the day it cleared a square in Manama of pro-democracy protesters.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a U.S.-based human rights group that campaigns for medical staff working in crisis zones, said police forces still tightly controlled the hospital and continued to harass patients and staff.
"It's absolutely shocking what is taking place. We've heard corroborating testimonies from numerous patients, hospital staff, nurses, physicians ... on serious violations of medical neutrality," the group's Deputy Director Richard Sollom told Reuters during a fact-finding mission in Bahrain.
DOCTORS BEATEN, GROUP SAYS
Sollom said that during the crackdown, police and soldiers entered operating theatres and that a number of doctors at the hospital had disappeared.
He said that three Shi'ite doctors were violently beaten by security forces at the hospital's staff hostel this week, according to witness testimonies.
"This is such horrific abuse against physicians who are ethically required to be serving their patients," he said.
He also said that police forces had beaten patients on March 17 on the sixth floor of the hospital, to where police had directed protesters injured during the crackdown.
"This amounts to torture under the definition of the United Nations," Sollom said.
Bahrain's government denies there is torture saying that all such accusations will be investigated.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has said hospitals in Bahrain had become places to be feared where wounds can identify people for arrest.
Bahrain rejected those allegations as part of an "orchestrated campaign by the protest movement."
Government officials have said that Bahrain's health system is operating normally and that the Salmaniya hospital had been overrun by political activities directed against the government.
It has said that access had been blocked for only one hour and that at no point had the Bahraini army entered the hospital.
Most protesters were brought to the hospital during initial clashes in February, and its compound became a rallying point for family members of killed protesters and funeral processions starting from the hospital turned into anti-government protests.
Medical staff also held regular rallies to protest against attacks on them by security forces.
The clashes in Bahrain have killed at least 13 protesters and four police and PHR said security forces had used excessive force against protesters such as the use of live ammunition.
(Additional reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Nick Macfie)