Repeated allegations that confessions were obtained by abuse cast doubt on sentences that a Bahraini court has handed down this week to opposition political activists over violent protests in 2007, Human Rights Watch said today. The convictions of the men rested in part on confessions obtained during their interrogation and detention.

Bahrain’s High Criminal Court on July 13 sentenced 11 men to jail terms ranging from one to seven years for a variety of offenses, including illegal assembly, arson, attacking security forces, and theft of and illegal possession of weapons. The charges stem from confrontations between protesters and security forces in and near Manama in December 2007, in which protesters set fire to a police vehicle and allegedly stole a weapon from it. The court acquitted four other men charged in connection with that incident.

“By convicting these people partly on their confessions without having credibly answered claims of coercion and abuse, Bahrain’s courts are failing to address the possibility of torture,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should suspend the verdicts and thoroughly investigate the claims of abuse in detention.”

Relatives of the detainees, as well as several men who were held in connection with the clashes and subsequently released, told Human Rights Watch in January and February that interrogators had tortured some of the detainees and sexually assaulted at least one. Several detainees claim they were abused in detention as interrogators sought to obtain confessions. A court-ordered medical inquiry in April concluded that the men may have had injuries consistent with abuse they described, but that delayed examinations made verifying claims of torture impossible.

Some of the 11 men sentenced are members of nongovernmental organizations aligned with opposition political movements. Several of them have alleged repeated abuse at the hands of interrogators seeking to elicit confessions following their arrests in mid-December 2007 and the beginning of their trials in February 2008.

Relatives of one man, Mohammed Singace, whom the court sentenced to five years on charges including unlicensed possession of ammunition, told Human Rights Watch in February that he said his guards beat him with a metal rod. They said they saw fresh bruises when they visited him at a Manama detention facility. Relatives of Maytham Badr al-Shaykh, whom the court sentenced to five years on charges including theft and illegal possession of weapons, told Human Rights Watch in January that al-Shaykh told them during a family visit that his jailers had sexually assaulted and electrocuted him, and suspended him from his hands and feet.

Relatives of Naji al-Fateel and Hasan Abdelnabi, whom the court sentenced to five and seven years respectively, told Human Rights Watch that the men said they had been deliberately placed with prisoners suffering from contagious illnesses.

A senior interior ministry official said on January 17 that a forensic physician had examined detainees claiming abuse but found no evidence of mistreatment. On January 21, Human Rights Watch urged Bahrain to let independent physicians investigate claims of abuse in detention.

The Bahrain Human Rights Society, an independent and legally recognized group, said on January 27 that it had asked the public prosecutor for permission to visit the detainees, but the authorities refused to allow physicians to take part in the visits. Following complaints from lawyers representing detainees that their requests for independent medical examinations of their clients had gone unanswered, the High Criminal Court authorized a Health Ministry team of doctors to examine detainees. The medical team issued its findings in April.

“Any forced confessions shouldn’t be admitted as evidence,” Whitson said. Bahrain’s obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights include ensuring the rights of individuals not to be tortured, the right to a fair trial, and the right not to be compelled to confess guilt. Bahrain has also ratified the Convention Against Torture, which stipulates that states must ensure that statements made as a result of torture are not used as evidence in any legal proceeding.

Lawyers representing the sentenced men said they would begin filing appeals of the High Criminal Court’s verdicts in the coming days.