(Washington, DC) - Bahraini authorities should immediately look into allegations of torture by four opposition activists who had been held in incommunicado detention for more than two weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. In their formal interrogation sessions with prosecutors, the four contended that their captors had subjected them to torture and degrading treatment.
Attorney General Ali Fadhul al-Buainain summoned Abd al-Jalil al-Singace for formal questioning and arraignment during the late evening of August 27 and early morning hours of August 28, 2010. According to people familiar with the proceedings, al-Singace, who had spent the previous 15 days in incommunicado detention, told al-Buainain of having been handcuffed and blindfolded the entire time. Al-Singace said that his captors beat him on his fingers with a hard instrument, slapped him around, and pulled and twisted his nipples and ears with tongs.
The next day, three other detainees arrested shortly after al-Singace complained of similar mistreatment at the hands of their captors during their Public Prosecution Office (PPO) proceedings.
"Bahraini authorities should immediately investigate these allegations of torture and guarantee the physical and psychological well-being of the four men," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The attorney general has a legal obligation to throw out any coerced confessions and any evidence obtained by ill-treatment, including information that led to the men's indictments."
Prosecutors charged the four men with various national security and counterterrorism crimes and ordered another 60 days of detention.
Security forces took into al-Singace into custody at Bahrain International Airport on August 13, as he returned from London with his family. They arrested the three other activists, Abd-al Ghani al-Khanjar, Sheikh Said al-Nuri, and Sheikh Muhammad Habib al-Moqdad, on August 15. Both al-Singace and al-Khanjar had attended a conference at the House of Lords in London on August 5, during which they criticized Bahrain's human rights practices.
Security forces have reportedly made many additional arrests since then - at least 160, according to one lawyer. One was al-Singace's sister, Fakhria, who was arrested on August 24 after she held a banner in a shopping mall that read, "No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." Authorities released her the next day. Most or all of the other opposition activists, including people associated with human rights groups, remain in detention.
Bahraini criminal law requires the authorities to bring a detainee before prosecutors within 48 hours of an arrest, and to charge or release the person. A 2006 counterterrorism law allows for a 15-day administrative detention period before the person must be brought before a prosecutor, however. Those arrested in the latest round may face charges under this law.
On August 28 the state-run Bahrain News Agency quoted an unnamed National Security Agency source as saying that the arrests were "related to the network seeking to undermine national security both inside Bahrain and abroad and to damage the country's stability" and that al-Singace "led, alongside other people, sabotage cells that operated under their command" and "provided funds and financial support to the cells under various covers to carry out acts of terror."
Human Rights Watch contacted lawyers for al-Singace and the others, but the lawyers declined to comment on what had happened in the prosecution office, saying that authorities forbade them to discuss what happened there. The attorney general on August 26 also barred media coverage of the arrests and criminal cases. A public prosecution source who spoke to Gulf News said: "No details or hints about the investigations should be published, and violators of the gag will be imprisoned for up to one year or fined. The only exception is statements issued by the public prosecutor."
During the prosecution office proceedings, al-Singace reportedly complained about extensive beatings and degrading treatment during his detention, and requested medical attention. Sources familiar with the proceedings said that al-Singace told the attorney general of being kept in solitary confinement the whole time and was deprived of a shower, regular access to the bathroom, and sleep for long periods of time.
Al-Singace, who is partially paralyzed from polio and requires assistance to walk, said that authorities took his wheelchair and crutches away from him at the moment of arrest and forced him to crawl to and from his cell. He also alleged that his captors forced him to stand for long periods of time and that he was forced to sign papers that he did not have a chance to review while in custody.
Sources told Human Rights Watch that at their hearings before the public prosecutors on August 28, al-Khanjar, al-Moqdad, and al-Nuri showed signs of beatings and possibly torture on their hands and feet. All three reportedly complained that their captors had hung them by their arms with handcuffs and beat them. Al-Khanjar, a human rights activist, is spokesperson for the National Committee for Martyrs and Victims of Torture.
One of the lawyers said that prosecutors had charged the defendants with various crimes under the 2006 counterterrorism law and the penal code. These crimes include "forming an illegal organization with the objective of overthrowing the government and dissolving the constitution" (article 6 of the counterterrorism law), "inciting and planning terrorist acts" (article 17 of the counterterrorism law), "inciting hatred and contempt against the regime" (article 165 of the penal code); "spreading false information" (article 169 of the penal code), "inciting hatred against a certain sect" (article 172 of the penal code), and "agreeing to and inciting others to damage public property and committing terrorist acts" (article 11 of the counterterrorism law).
It was not immediately clear which applicable laws pertained to several other crimes which the defendants have been charged with, such as "contacting and working with international organizations" and "reciving funds from international parties."
Bahrain is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 9 of the ICCPR states that "anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him," and "shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power."
Bahrain has also ratified the Convention against Torture, which prohibits torture and other ill-treatment under all circumstances and prohibits the use of statements made as a result of torture as evidence in legal proceedings. In a February report, Human Rights Watch concluded that security officials repeatedly used torture for the apparent purpose of securing confessions from security suspects. Bahraini officials claimed in response that torture is not routine or systematic, and that any official found to be responsible would be punished. But to Human Rights Watch's knowledge, there have been no independent investigations or prosecutions concerning cases documented in its report.
The counterterrorism law's provision authorizing 15-day detention before a suspect is presented before the public prosecutor does not appear to meet the ICCPR's requirement of "promptly" presenting the accused before a judicial body. In addition, the overly broad and ambiguous language of the 2006 counterterrorism law and the penal code allow the government to criminalize the basic rights to freedom of expression and association.
"Bahrain's claim to respect human rights is absolutely incompatible with practices like prolonged incommunicado detention, which is exactly when torture and mistreatment typically occur," Stork said. "To then gag lawyers and journalists from discussing these cases - this is certainly not the behavior of a government committed to human rights."