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(Beirut) – Bahrain’s police are beating and torturing detainees, including minors, despite public commitments to end torture and police impunity, Human Rights Watch said today following a five day visit to the country.

While in Bahrain, from April 15 to 19, 2012, Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 young males, including 7 children, who said police had beaten them severely while arresting them for participating in public protests and while taking them to a police station. The beatings took place after the release of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in November 2011 and subsequent pledges by government officials, including King Hamad, to end ill-treatment and torture. Five of the incidents occurred in April.

While treatment inside police stations and formal detention facilities appears to have significantly improved since the release of the BICI report, Human Rights Watch found that police still regularly resorted to beating protesters, in some cases severely, at the time of arrest and during their transfer to police stations.

“Bahrain has displaced the problem of torture and police brutality from inside police stations to the point of arrest and transfer to police stations,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, who was on the five-day visit. “This abuse contradicts one of the most important recommendations of the independent commission and shows why investigations and prosecutions of abusers to the highest level are essential to stopping these practices.”

Human Rights Watch heard numerous consistent accounts from victims that the police were taking detained protesters to informal detention facilities or isolated outdoor areas for between 30 minutes and two hours and beating them before transferring them to police stations. Human Rights Watch collected detailed information about two such informal facilities: a youth hostel in Sanabis and an equestrian school for police members, locally referred to as Khayyala, near the police station in Budaiya.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed two 16-year-olds who said riot police had picked them up off the streets in al-Deir, a village northeast of Manama on April 17, and took them to an empty lot near the village. There, they said, police beat them severely and threatened one with rape if they did not give information about where the village youths were allegedly hiding Molotov cocktails. The police left them in the empty lot after it became clear that the youths had no such information. Injury marks consistent with their account of beatings on their backs, arms, and faces were still clearly visible when Human Rights Watch interviewed them on April 18.

While many anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain have remained peaceful, some protesters have used rocks and Molotov cocktails to confront police. Police officials and officers, many of whom are recruited from countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria, told Human Rights Watch that they feel besieged in the predominantly Shi`a neighborhoods where most protests take place. At the same time, during Human Rights Watch’s time in Bahrain, activists and political analysts repeatedly suggested that the use of excessive force by police is not deterring protests, but rather leading to greater anger and eagerness to confront them.

“Violence by some protesters is wrong, but in no way justifies brutal police beatings of those detained by police,” Houry said. “This unlawful police behavior may well make the young protesters even more desperate and determined to confront the government.”

Human Rights Watch has previously documented frequent use of torture by Bahraini authorities, usually in the context of interrogations and for the apparent purpose of securing confessions. The BICI also documented routine torture and said that the failure of authorities to investigate and punish those responsible had led to a “climate of impunity” in the country.

Human Rights Watch raised the issue of police brutality and torture during arrest and at informal facilities with Bahrain’s chief of public security, Major General Tariq al-Hasan, and his two senior international advisers, John Yates and John Timoney, on April 17. Timoney and Yates said they had visited some of the facilities identified by Human Rights Watch but found no evidence at the time of their visits of detainees being taken there and mistreated. Major General al-Hasan told Human Rights Watch that the police authorities were considering issuing instructions to order immediate transfer of detained protesters to police stations.

Major General al-Hasan also stressed that the government’s priority was improved police training as a long-term solution to the problem of abuse. But the country has apparently made rapid progress in eliminating torture inside police stations, where video cameras are being installed at the recommendation of the BICI. And police have shown relative restraint when confronting protests in the presence of international media and human rights observers.

These changes demonstrate that the police can behave professionally when they are being watched, indicating that additional training is not the key factor, Human Rights Watch said. Bahrain’s leaders need to make clear that they will investigate and punish those responsible for abuses when the cameras are off.

Victims who reported being beaten by the police consistently told Human Rights Watch that because they did not trust the police or the public prosecutor, they had not filed complaints against police officers who beat them. Three protesters who were severely beaten by police on December 16 after they sought shelter on a rooftop in the village of Shakhura told Human Rights Watch that they feared being arrested for holding an “illegal gathering” if they filed a complaint. The beating incident was captured on camera and widely disseminated on YouTube.

Human Rights Watch raised the case of the December 16 Shakhura beating with Interior Ministry officials as well as members of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The officials were aware of the case and of the video but said that a criminal investigation was hindered by the fact that no protester had filed a complaint. They added that some police officers had been suspended for their conduct, but acknowledged that they have not publicly announced who was suspended or why.

“Bahrain’s public prosecutor as well as the commanders of security forces need to prove they are willing to hold officers at all levels accountable for beating and humiliating protesters,” Houry said.

Clashes between police and protesters occur almost every night. During Human Rights Watch’s brief visit, protesters demanded the release of political prisoners, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who are serving lengthy prison sentences after leading last year’s massive peaceful street protests demanding serious political reforms. Tensions have also risen because of stalled implementation of key BICI recommendations.

Police often use force to disperse non-violent protests, on the grounds that they are unauthorized. In one case observed by Human Rights Watch, in the village of Diraz on the night of April 15, riot police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse and then detain participants in a march who were chanting anti-government slogans and trying to reach a main road, but who had not acted violently. An officer at the scene told Human Rights Watch that police used force preemptively, saying, “if we didn’t attack the protesters, they would have attacked us.”

Later that evening, Human Rights Watch also observed police using tear gas to disperse a group of mothers who had come to the nearby police station in Budaiya to protest the detention of their sons following the Diraz protest.

“Instead of using force reflexively, Bahraini police should work with community leaders to establish ground rules that would allow opposition supporters to protest peacefully and visibly, even if protests are technically unauthorized, so long as they are non-violent,” Houry said.

Beating and Arrest of at Least 18 Youths in Bani Jamra, Evening of April 13

Human Rights Watch documented the beating by Interior Ministry riot police of a group of young protesters, many of them minors, who gathered on the evening of April 13 in the village of Bani Jamra. Some protesters who had evaded arrest and neighboring residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that riot police charged a group of protesters who had gathered on the outskirts of the village. The protesters, some of whom had thrown rocks, ran into a house to escape the police.

The riot police chased at least 18 youths to the house and cornered them on the rooftop. Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police beat the protesters on the rooftop and pushed some off the rooftop and onto the roof of a neighboring house. Human Rights Watch visited the house where the protesters had sought shelter and found some bloodstains on the rooftop. The difference in elevation between the rooftop where the protesters had hidden and where some were allegedly pushed was about three meters. Human Rights Watch also found evidence that riot police had forcibly entered the house where the protesters had sought shelter as well as the neighboring house onto which the protesters had allegedly been thrown.

Witnesses said the police then beat the protesters and dragged them through the main Bani Jamra cemetery to a waiting police bus on the main road. A number of residents in neighboring Bani Jamra homes told Human Rights Watch they heard screams from the young men as they were being dragged. The protesters were taken initially to the Budaiya police station. A number of them were sent from there to a hospital. Human Rights Watch received information that at least two of the protesters were still in the hospital as of April 21. Human Rights Watch visited one of the hospitalized detainees, Sadeq Riad Abbas Khamdan, at Salmaniya hospital; he had a broken arm and a skull fracture.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ministry of Human Rights as well as officials in the Interior Ministry on April 18 to inquire about the case. No response has been received.

Ill-Treatment and Torture at Informal Detention Facilities

Mohammed and Ali, both 20, who are not identified by their real names for their security, described their ordeal when riot police detained them and three others at a protest in Sanabis on February 11 and transferred them to a youth hostel that had been transformed into an informal police facility. They said police beat them at the moment of arrest and again after placing them in jeeps, slapping them and insulting their Shi`a faith. Mohammed said that after they arrived at the youth hostel, police officers sprinkled water on his stomach and threatened him and other detainees with electric shock. Ali described what happened after he was taken outdoors:

I had lost my shoes and could feel grass beneath my feet. With my hands cuffed behind my back, they made me kneel and bend over and they started kicking me and beating me with sticks. Someone said: “Finished.” Another voice said: “Too early, continue.” They then removed all my clothes, apart from the tee shirt that they had turned on my head, and laughed at me. They then put my pants back on and asked me to pray. As I leaned forward, I and the other prisoner were kicked from behind and we fell forward into a swimming pool, still with hands cuffed. The pool was shallow, so I was able to stand but the water was cold – it was a particularly chilly evening. When I fell into the pool, my tee shirt hood came down and I could see policemen standing around the pool.

Ali said police pulled him out of the pool by his hair and beat him again, on his forearms and knees, with sticks. Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite imagery of the Youth Hostel facility and can confirm that there is a pool in its confines.

A 19-year old protester from Sar village, who asked that his name not be used, described the beating he endured on April 5 at the police force equestrian school, locally referred to as Khayyala, near the police station in Budaiya:

I ran away as the police came to disperse the protest in Sar. The police found me in the house I had taken shelter in and beat me. Then they put me in their jeep. While driving, they would beat me, insult me, and hit me with their helmets. They had taken three of us from the protest. One they simply beat and released immediately, but they took me and the other to the horse stable facing the police station in Budaiya. Once we entered the horse stable, they put us in the square and three or four of them started beating me. Later in the evening, they transferred me to the police station in Budaiya where an officer on the first floor interrogated me. During the interrogation, the officer asked me to work with them and tell them where they can find the Molotov cocktails in the village. If I did not cooperate, he said that “I will see.” I told them that I am a student and did not want to work for them.

The police later released him.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two other former detainees who said they had been beaten in October 2011 at the Khayyala facility. One of them, Ibrahim (not his real name), 17, said that riot police drove him to the Khayyala facility on October 29, 2011 and held him there for about two hours until they transferred him to Budaiya police station:

When we got there [Khayyala], they made us stand on a wall. A police officer asked me if I wanted water. I told him yes. And he threw water on my back. Four or five men then started beating me. After around 15 minutes, they let three others who were with me go, but kept kicking me. They said they were playing Barcelona against Real Madrid, and would kick me as if I was the ball. When I was taken to police station, they told me I must confess and threatened to beat me again. I confessed to throwing rocks and blocking roads.

Khaled and Ahmad (not their real names), both 16, told Human Rights Watch riot police picked them up from a street in their village of Deir at around 5:30 p.m. on April 17. They were taken to an empty lot where they were both severely beaten and threatened, they said. Ali recounted his experience:

There was no protest, nothing going on in the village. Three of us were just walking on the street. Suddenly we saw eight police cars driving on the street in our direction. We panicked and started running away. I had been beaten twice before by the police. One of us managed to escape but the riot police caught up with Ibrahim and me. They threw a sound bomb next to us and told us to stop or they would use a pellet shotgun against us.

As soon as they caught up with us, they started beating us. They then took us to their cars, while beating us along the way. When I tried to explain that we did nothing, one of the policemen slapped me hard. Once inside the jeep, one of the policemen loaded his rubber ball riot shot gun and put it to my head. He threatened to use it if I didn’t tell him where the Molotov cocktails were. He then pulled out his pistol and asked the same question. An officer told him to stop it. They threatened to take us to the Youth Hostel and to beat us there. But in fact, they took us to an empty lot near the village. In the car, they beat us with some sort of metal stick. They kept saying, tell us where the Molotov cocktails are and we will stop. We did not know, but they would not stop.

When they got to the empty lot, Khaled said, both he and Ahmad were beaten severely. Ahmad said one policeman held his head, while the other kicked him on his face. The metal tip of the boot cut his forehead just above his eye. The policemen then made them lie on the ground and left them in the empty lot. The wounds on their backs and on Ahmad’s face were clearly visible when Human Rights Watch interviewed them on April 18.  

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