February 8, 2010


We’ll go back to the 1990s.
 —Ministry of Interior officer to detainee Nadr Ali Ahmad al-Salatne

By the end of the 1990s, Bahrain appeared to have cast off what had been a well-deserved reputation as a country that routinely tortured detainees. The government had taken significant steps to curtail the use of torture and other ill-treatment by its security officials, and reports of such practices became a rarity. This report concludes, however, that since the end of 2007, officials again have used torture and ill-treatment, particularly during the interrogation of security suspects.  Human Rights Watch’s conclusion is based on interviews with former detainees and others, as well as its review of government documents.

This reversion to past practices came as political tensions rose in Bahrain. Street demonstrations involving young men from the country’s majority Shia Muslim community protesting alleged discrimination by the Sunni-dominated government deteriorated with increasing regularity into confrontations, sometimes violent, with security forces. Arrests often followed. Security officials appear to have utilized a specific repertoire of techniques against many of those arrested designed to inflict pain and elicit confessions.

These techniques included the use of electro-shock devices, suspension in painful positions, beating the soles of the feet (falaka), and beatings of the head, torso, and limbs. Some detainees also reported that security officials had threatened to kill them or to rape them or members of their families. Many detainees were subjected to more than one of these practices. The use of these techniques, separately and in combination, violates Bahrain’s obligations as a state party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) and other international treaties, as well as the prohibition of torture in Bahraini law.

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For many years, government opponents have chosen December 16—Bahrain’s National Day—and the days leading up to it as an opportune time to mount street protests. December 2007 saw protests in a number of Shia neighborhoods and villages around the capital, Manama. When a young protestor died—opposition activists charge he was asphyxiated by security forces’ excessive use of tear gas, while officials claim he died of natural causes—the confrontations intensified. In one village, Jidhafs, protestors torched a security forces vehicle and allegedly stole from it an assault rifle and ammunition. Scores of arrests followed, and in subsequent weeks Bahraini human rights activists reported claims from detainees, relayed by family members and later by defense lawyers, that security forces had subjected those arrested to severe beatings, electro-shock devices, prolonged suspension in painful positions, and other forms of abuse that amounted to torture or otherwise illegal treatment. Officials categorically denied that security forces committed any such acts.

The large-scale arrests in response to the December 2007 events led to further cycles of protest and arrest. In March 2008, security forces arrested at least eight young men from around the village of Karzakan, about 20 kilometers south of Manama, following what officials claimed was an arson attack on nearby property belonging to a member of the ruling Al Khalifa family (specifically, a former head of the National Security Agency, or NSA, the security service most directly involved in suppressing the street protests).  Security forces arrested some 30 young men in the same area a month later, when clashes between protestors and security forces left an NSA vehicle in flames and a Pakistani NSA officer dead, although the circumstances of his death became the subject of some dispute. Further allegations of torture and ill-treatment were made by these detainees, followed by further government denials.

December 2008 saw additional arrests, this time of approximately 35 men who, the authorities claimed, had traveled to Syria to receive training in the use of explosives and other forms of sabotage, or had been recruited by the leaders of the opposition Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy to carry out attacks on property and foment violence. These detainees too, through family members and defense lawyers, complained that they had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. The Public Prosecution Office broadcast a program on state-run television in which 11 of these detainees made statements that purported to be confessions confirming the government’s allegations and implicating leaders of the Haq Movement as the organizers of a planned campaign to stage violent protests and destroy property. Three Haq Movement leaders were also arrested, but did not allege that they themselves had been subjected to physical abuse.

At court hearings involving many of those arrested in connection with the above-described incidents, defendants raised allegations of torture.  In several cases the court ordered that government doctors conduct medical examinations of those who complained of torture; in a good number of instances, the government doctors found evidence of injuries consistent with the detainees’ allegations.

On April 11, 2009, government officials announced that Bahrain’s ruler, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, had granted a “pardon” to 178 persons then in custody, including many who had been detained in connection with the aforementioned incidents. Those subject to the pardon included persons already convicted and persons whose trials were ongoing. Although government officials, and the Bahraini media, referred to the king’s initiative as a pardon, it was never published in the Official Gazette and it appears to have been more of a suspension of sentences and court proceedings, which might be—and for some individuals were—subsequently reinstated.

However conditional the pardon may have been, the release of these detainees presented an opportunity for Human Rights Watch to interview them regarding their treatment in detention and particularly during interrogation. Two Human Rights Watch researchers visited Bahrain from June 6 to June 15, 2009, and met with 20 former detainees: 10 from the December 2007 incidents in Jidhafs; three from February, March and April 2008 incidents in and around Karzakan; and seven who had been arrested in December 2008. A number of other former detainees indicated that they did not feel comfortable meeting with Human Rights Watch. According to Bahraini human rights and opposition activists, authorities had warned former detainees that there might be repercussions for speaking with media or outside investigators.

Human Rights Watch also met with defense lawyers, local human rights activists, local journalists, and government officials. In addition, Human Rights Watch acquired medical reports written by Bahraini government doctors regarding the physical condition of detainees, court documents, and reports generated by the security services and prosecutors.

Most of the former detainees who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that they had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment at the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Criminal Investigation (CID) in Adliya, a neighborhood of the capital; at the Ministry of Interior’s Short-Term Detention Unit, also known as Dry Dock because of its proximity to a ship repair yard; and/or at the offices of the NSA, also on the grounds of the Ministry of Interior. The NSA and the Ministry of Interior both report to the Supreme Defense Council, a 14-member body that is drawn entirely from the ruling family and headed by the prime minister.

Several of the detainees had also been brought in front of prosecutors who failed to respond appropriately to their complaints of ill-treatment. In a number of instances prosecutors failed to record complaints, order forensic medical examinations, or launch any investigation into a detainee’s allegations. In some cases, prosecutors returned detainees to the custody of the same security officers allegedly responsible for the abuse in the first place. Other prosecutors did appropriately send detainees for medical exams when the detainees complained of torture.

Officials with the Ministry of Interior and the Public Prosecution Office, in separate meetings with Human Rights Watch, denied that torture had been employed against those detained in connection with the incidents referenced above. They said the consistency in the accounts of the former detainees, as discussed below, reflected the fact that the detainees had been imprisoned together and had consulted the same defense lawyers. In the opinion of these officials, the consistency of the allegations was evidence that the allegations had been fabricated. The public prosecutor told Human Rights Watch that, as far as he could recall, he had not referred any complaints of torture to the Ministry of Interior for consideration in relation to the former detainees whose cases are described here. At this writing, in January 2010, Human Rights Watch had received no response to letters to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior raising detailed questions about government policies with regard to torture and ill-treatment. (These letters are reproduced in the appendix to this report.)

Human Rights Watch found the accounts of torture and ill-treatment documented in this report to be credible. These accounts were consistent as to the specific techniques employed by security services, which supports their credibility. Further, the accounts of abuse provided to Human Rights Watch matched those that detainees had offered earlier in court proceedings and to their defense counsel. In addition, contrary to the assertions of government officials, there is evidence that some if not all detainees had been held in solitary confinement at the time they first reported abuse, reducing the opportunities for them to fabricate accounts prior to making such reports; with respect to the December 2008 detainees, a court ordered that they be removed from solitary confinement in March 2009, after they already had complained to the court and their lawyers about abuse. The detainees also described in consistent terms various interrogation techniques that, while deceptive, did not constitute torture or ill-treatment. None alleged, moreover, that they suffered abuse continuously, and for the most part they did not allege that abuse took place other than in connection with interrogations (or in some cases at the point of arrest).

Most significantly, the medical reports of government doctors, along with various court papers, provided the strongest corroboration of the former detainees’ allegations. In fact, the court in one of the Karzakan cases acquitted all defendants on all charges in part because it concluded—on the basis of medical reports—that the defendants had been physically coerced into confessing.

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Bahrain undertook significant reforms after Shaikh Hamad succeeded his father as ruler (amir, or prince) in 1999. Not the least of these were reforms affecting the security services and the administration of justice. Shaikh Hamad freed thousands of political prisoners and invited the return of hundreds of citizens who had been forcibly exiled. Structural changes included moving the Public Prosecution Office from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior to that of the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps the most significant reform was the abolition of the State Security Court that the government had used for the previous quarter-century to imprison political opponents following closed trials that did not meet international fair trial standards. The State Security Court, which lacked any independence from the executive branch, typically relied on confessions obtained by physical coercion. Beyond these reforms, the government ratified the Convention against Torture, and invited a delegation of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions to visit the country.

A more negative development was the October 2002 decree issued by Shaikh Hamad (who in the meantime had promoted himself to king) effectively granting amnesty from criminal investigation or prosecution to officials alleged to have ordered or carried out serious crimes such as torture.

Nonetheless, while Bahrain had been notorious between 1975 and 1999 as a country where torture was a serious and systemic problem (as Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations documented), reports of torture or ill-treatment in detention were scarce after 1999. By 2005, when Bahrain belatedly presented its first report to the UN Committee against Torture (international experts who review the compliance of state parties to the Convention against Torture), it seemed that the government could legitimately claim to have ceased the practice of torture. Indeed, while Human Rights Watch did document serious abuses over the last decade, such as beatings by security forces at the point of arrest, complaints of torture in detention or during interrogation had grown quite rare—until recently.

It should be noted that while Bahraini government agents began to employ torture again in late 2007, the fact that government doctors are now able to provide corroboration of torture and ill-treatment marks a major improvement from the era of routine torture that characterized Bahrain in the 1980s and 1990s.  During those years, doctors were intimidated from issuing reports that corroborated allegations of abuse, if medical examinations were conducted at all.

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Human Rights Watch urges the government of Bahrain to take prompt action to ensure that torture and ill-treatment are once again eradicated from the practices of security officials. The government should conduct prompt and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture or ill-treatment by security officials of any rank in the CID or the NSA (or other security services), and prosecute any offenders to the full extent of the law in a court meeting international fair trial standards. More specifically, such prosecutions should occur before an independent civilian court, rather than the Police Court of the Ministry of Interior, where such prosecutions—to the extent they occur at all—now take place.

Human Rights Watch also urges the government to suspend immediately any security official if credible evidence exists that such official ordered, carried out, or condoned acts of torture or ill-treatment. The government should further commence investigations into whether prosecutors, including those named in this report, responded appropriately to allegations of torture or whether their actions rendered them complicit in acts of abuse. If there is credible evidence that a prosecutor or other state agent was complicit in torture or ill-treatment, the government should pursue appropriate sanctions.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, countries with significant security links to Bahrain, to urge the government of Bahrain to take immediate and measurable steps to end the use of torture by the country’s security forces. France and the United Kingdom in particular have training and assistance arrangements with Bahrain’s NSA and the Ministry of Interior, respectively. Thus, these countries may risk being implicated in prohibited practices and violating their own legal obligations if they cooperate with law enforcement forces they know or should know are employing torture or other ill-treatment.