(Manama) - Bahrain's public prosecutor should investigate three deaths in custody reported since April 3, 2011, and hold accountable anyone found responsible for torture, ill-treatment, or denial of medical care, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch observed the body of one of the three men, Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, which bore signs of horrific abuse.
Human Rights Watch also called on the government to disclose the whereabouts of detainees, permit them to contact their families and lawyers, and open detention centers to independent inspection. As of April 6, the opposition Wifaq National Islamic Society had collected names of 430 people who relatives say have been arrested since demonstrations began on February 14.
"It's outrageous and cruel that people are taken off to detention and the families hear nothing until the body shows up with signs of abuse," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities need to explain why this is happening, put a stop to it, and hold anyone responsible to account."
Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, 31, turned himself in to police in Hamad Town on April 3, his family told Human Rights Watch. Police had been looking for him in connection with an incident during anti-government demonstrations in which the authorities alleged that he tried to run over a policeman with his car but hit a protester. Police had visited relatives at least three times, saying that if Saqer did not turn himself in, they would detain the relatives instead, family members said.
After Saqer surrendered, his family heard nothing more about him until April 9, when the interior Ministry announced that he had died in custody. The Interior Ministry issued a statement published in Bahrain newspapers that he had "created chaos" in a detention center, "which led security forces to bring the situation under control," resulting in his death.
Human Rights Watch viewed Saqer's remains during the ritual body washing before he was buried in his home village of Sehla on April 10. His body showed signs of severe physical abuse. The left side of his face showed a large patch of bluish skin with a reddish-purple area near his left temple and a two-inch cut to the left of his eye. Lash marks crisscrossed his back, some reaching to his front right side. Blue bruises covered much of the back of his calves, thighs, and buttocks, as well as his right elbow and hip. The tops of his feet were blackened, and lacerations marked his ankles and wrists.
Family members showed Human Rights Watch a document entitled "Medical Notification of Cause of Death," issued by the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) Hospital on April 9. It listed the cause of death as "hypovolemic shock," a condition usually brought on by extreme loss of blood. The cause, the document stated, was "multiple trauma." The interval between the onset of the condition and death was simply given as "some time." The notification stated that Saqer arrived at BDF hospital "collapsed."
Relatives who retrieved the body at Salmaniya hospital on April 9 said that they did not ask for an autopsy, saying that they wanted to bury Saqer as soon as possible.
On April 10, the Interior Ministry announced that it had opened an investigation against Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, for allegedly circulating on his Twitter account "a fabricated image of Ali Isa Saqer."
"We viewed Ali Saqer's body just prior to his burial, and its condition was exactly as shown in the photo that Nabeel Rajab circulated," Stork said. "It's a sign of how bad things have gotten in Bahrain that the authorities are investigating human rights activists for exposing what happened to Saqer instead of investigating those responsible for his violent death."
In the second case, masked uniformed police arrested Zakaria Rashid Hassan al-Asherri, 40, at about 2 a.m. on April 2, at his home in the village of Dair, his brother, Ali al-Asherri, told Human Rights Watch. Ali al-Asherri is a former parliament member from the opposition Wifaq National Islamic Society. Zakaria al-Asherri administered a blog, www.aldair.net/forum, which carried critical commentary about government policies and which has been blocked in Bahrain. The next day, relatives searched for al-Asherri at the Muharraq police station, but officers there provided no information about him. On April 9, the Interior Ministry announced that al-Asherri had died in detention, attributing his death to complications from sickle cell anemia.
On April 11, at Zakaria al-Asherri's funeral, Ali al-Asherri told Human Rights Watch that his brother was a carrier of the disease, but had never suffered ill-effects from it. Authorities provided the family with a death certificate saying Zakaria died of shock, Ali said. A photograph that Ali said he took by mobile phone during the April 11 pre-burial body cleansing showed a wound on Zakaria's right shoulder, a gash on his nose and some blood that had issued from his ears and lips. Human Rights Watch did not see Zakaria's body.
Al-Asherri's family asked officials at Salmaniya Hospital, where they retrieved his body, to perform an autopsy, which was carried out. Officials told the family that authorities at the Interior Ministry would make the results available to them later, Ali said. Stitches down Zakaria's chest from the autopsy were visible on Ali's photograph of his body.
In the third case, the government announced on April 3 that Hassan Jassim Mohammed Maki, a 39-year-old laborer, had died in police custody. The statement also attributed his death to complications from sickle cell anemia. Police had arrested Maki in a predawn raid at his home in Karzakan March 28.
Human Rights Watch viewed photos the family said they took during the pre-burial cleansing of Maki's body. The photos showed bruises on the back and front of his upper body as well as his ankles, and a pair of small, round wounds the size of small coins on the back of his head. His family did not ask for an autopsy.
"We now have, in the space of just a week, three highly suspicious deaths in detention, and Bahrain has an obligation to conduct transparent and thorough investigations into each one and make the results public," Stork said. "Bahraini authorities have detained hundreds of people and refused to divulge any information about their whereabouts or well-being - precisely the circumstances in which detainees are at grave risk of torture."
On April 12, the opposition group Wifaq National Islamic Society announced that one of its members, a businessman named Kareem Fakhrawi, had died in custody. He reportedly was last seen at the Exhibition Centre Police Station on April 3. Human Rights Watch has not been able to investigate the report directly.
Since Bahraini military and security forces violently dispersed pro-democracy protests on March 15 and 16, at least three other civilians have died in custody under suspicious circumstances. In all of these cases the people were apparently taken into custody alive but later died at the BDF hospital, in the village of A'ali south of Manama. Some had serious injuries before they were detained. One of them, Isa al-Radhi, 45, had been missing since March 15, when security forces attacked the village of Sitra. On March 19, officials from the BDF hospital called his family and told them to collect his body. Pictures taken of al-Radhi's body prior to burial showed severe bruising. A forensic expert who reviewed the pictures told Human Rights Watch that "assaultive injuries cannot be ruled out."
The Convention against Torture, which Bahrain ratified in 1998, prohibits torture and ill-treatment under all circumstances. In a February 2010 report, Human Rights Watch concluded that security officials repeatedly used torture for the apparent purpose of securing confessions from security suspects. Bahrain officials claimed in response that torture was neither routine nor systematic, and that anyone found to be responsible would be punished. To Human Rights Watch's knowledge, there have been no independent investigations or prosecutions concerning cases documented in its report.
Bahrain is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 9 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."
The United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment specifies that "medical care and treatment shall be provided whenever necessary."
Since March 15, Bahrain has operated under martial law, officially labeled a "State of National Safety," which gave authorities wide powers of arrest, censorship, and prohibitions on freedom of movement and association.
"Emergency laws should not be used as a cover for brutality," Stork said.