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Bahrain: Promises Unkept, Rights Still Violated

Head of Independent Commission: Implementation ‘Inadequate’

(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities have failed to carry out the key recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which submitted its recommendations on accountability and other human rights issues a year ago. The commission concluded that security forces and other government authorities had committed serious and systematic human rights violations in connection with the government’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in 2011.

“Bahrain deservedly got a lot of credit for appointing an independent body to assess the government’s violations, but a year later, authorities have still not carried out the key recommendations,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “In fact, in many ways Bahrain’s human rights situation has only deteriorated since the king accepted the commission’s findings and recommendations.”

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed the BICI in July 2011 to investigate the government’s response to the demonstrations in February and March 2011. The commission concluded that the abuses by security forces – including torture and widespread arbitrary arrests – in the wake of the government suppression of the demonstrations “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure” of the security forces. It called on the government to address allegations of torture by security forces, “including those in the chain of command, military and civilian.”

King Hamad accepted the commission’s findings and recommendations on November 23, 2011.

Bahraini authorities have released some people who were wrongly detained in connection with and following the protests, reinstated many dismissed workers and students, and prosecuted a few, typically low-ranking, security personnel. But leading opposition activists who were sentenced to long prison terms, including life terms, after they called for political change remain behind bars, as do many others whose alleged crimes involved mostly peaceful street protests.

The politicized arrests and prosecutions have continued. In August 2012, a Bahraini court sentenced Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights defender, to three years in prison based solely on his participation in protests that authorities had not authorized. In November, four Bahrainis were sentenced to prison for “tweets” that authorities alleged had insulted the king, even though King Hamad had publicly stated that he did not want anyone charged with crimes involving alleged insults to him.

By contrast, there have been no prosecutions of high-level officials in connection with the policies that led to widespread torture and unlawful killings. Courts have upheld convictions based on coerced confessions.

The head of the independent commission, the Egyptian-American jurist M. Cherif Bassiouni, told Human Rights Watch that the government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations has been inadequate.

“A number of recommendations on accountability were either not implemented or implemented only half-heartedly,” Bassiouni said. “The public prosecution has yet to investigate over 300 cases of alleged torture, some involving deaths in custody, and there has been no investigation, let alone prosecution, for command responsibility, even at the immediate supervisory level, of people killed in custody as a result of torture.”

The public prosecution has announced investigations into allegations of wrongdoing involving  over 150 cases involving government personnel and charges against 56, including some 122 cases referred by the Interior Ministry, according to the official Information Affairs Authority. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, four have been convicted of an offense and at least three acquitted. The most severe sentence was seven years for a police lieutenant convicted of killing Hani Abd al-Aziz Jumaa with shotgun blasts fired at close range. In another case a policeman convicted in the shotgun shooting of an anti-government protester was sentenced to five years in prison, reduced on appeal to three years.

“You can’t say that justice has been done when calling for Bahrain to be a republic gets you a life sentence and the officer who repeatedly fired on an unarmed man at close range only gets seven years,” Bassiouni said.

Following the release of the report, the king established the National Commission to monitor the government’s implementation of the recommendations. The National Commission ended its work on March 20, and concluded that implementation was “comprehensive and far reaching” and “touched all aspects of Bahraini life.”

King Hamad’s decision to establish the independent commission was “courageous and far reaching,” Bassiouni said, but the conviction of Rajab, for example, illustrated “a pattern of continued prosecution of individuals solely for exercising rights protected by international human rights law, something King Hamad promised to bring to an end.”

Regarding many cases in which Bahrain’s highest court affirmed convictions despite credible allegations of torture, Bassiouni said that the rulings were “legally unsound,” citing one case in which the court declared the defendant’s confession admissible because it was taken several days after the torture occurred.

“I cannot think of a more egregious and specious legal opinion – admitting that the torture occurred but ruling the confession admissible and allowing the conviction to stand,” he said. “This constitutes a violation of the Convention Against Torture, to which Bahrain is a party.”

In line with the BICI recommendations, King Hamad stripped the National Security Agency of its powers to arrest and detain, and established a Special Investigation Unit in the Public Prosecution Office to look into allegations of unlawful deaths and torture. Bassiouni told Human Rights Watch that the seven-person unit is not working full-time on these cases, and has not conducted independent investigations. “The special unit does not have investigators or forensic experts on its staff,” he said. “This is a capacity problem that can and should be corrected.”

The government said that the Interior Ministry had developed a code of conduct for security forces and initiated training for security forces “to embed respect for human rights and due process.” During 2012, violence on the part of some protesters as well as police has increased, leading to the deaths and serious injuries of security personnel as well as protesters and bystanders.

“Despite the reform efforts the Interior Ministry says it has taken, there’s been a continuing pattern of the use of excessive force by security forces in response to peaceful as well as violent protests, and wanton beatings of young men accused of participating in illegal demonstrations,” Stork said. “It’s hard to see evidence of police reform when we look at how the security forces have actually been behaving.”

Despite official claims to the contrary, Bahrain continues to restrict access to the country for Human Rights Watch and other international rights monitors as well as journalists who have written critically about human rights conditions in the country.

For further details about the outstanding human rights concerns in Bahrain, please see below.


Bahraini authorities have announced at least 150 investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by security forces in suppressing the demonstrations of February and March 2011, including 122 cases referred by the Interior Ministry, as well as with regard to alleged human rights violations since then. However, these positive steps are offset by the failure to investigate and prosecute high-ranking officials. The results of most of the announced investigations remain unknown, and as far as Human Rights Watch can determine, the special unit has not itself conducted independently investigated the cases before it, owing to a lack of trained investigators and forensic experts.

The announced investigations include the following:

  • On November 11, 2012, the Interior Ministry said it will investigate policemen caught on camera beating a man in Bani Jamra, west of Manama. The video, examined by Human Rights Watch, showed nine policemen kicking and dragging the man. The Bahraini daily Al Wasat reported that the victim of this assault, 27-year-old Hassan Mohamed, was arrested and beaten while on his way to Friday prayer.
  • On September 27, 2012, the High Criminal Court found a first lieutenant of the Interior Ministry – the most senior official known to have been convicted so far – guilty of murdering Hani Abd al-Aziz Jumaa in March 2011 and sentenced him to seven years in prison.
  • Also on September 27, the High Criminal Court acquitted two police officers charged with killing Isa Abd al-Hussein, 60, and Ali Ahmed al-Momen, 23, on February 17, 2011.
  • On September 17, 2012, Nawaf Hamza, head of the Special Investigation Unit in the Public Prosecution Office, said that prosecutors charged seven “lieutenants in the Ministry of Interior” with torture and ill-treatment of medical staff detained in March and April 2011.
  • In an August 23, 2012 response to a Human Rights Watch letter, the Public Prosecution Office said that in June the Special Investigation Unit had charged 15 police officers with “using force and threat with a suspect to coerce a confession, physical assault, and public insult” and earlier had charged 22 people, presumably police officers, for acts that included “beating leading to death, the use of force with a suspect to coerce a confession, and physical assault.”
  • In June 2012, the High Criminal Court sentenced in absentia a 27-year-old police officer to five years in prison for “unintentionally causing a permanent disability” by shooting a Bahraini man in the leg during a demonstration in 2011. A local newspaper quoted the officer’s lawyer as saying that the officer was receiving treatment abroad at the time of his trial due to injuries sustained from an explosion on April 24, 2012, indicating that the officer continued his law enforcement duties while he was on trial. Human Rights Watch’s July 9, 2012 request for information regarding Bahrain’s policy with respect to deploying officers charged with violent crimes on active duty has gone unanswered. On November 8, 2012, an appellate court reduced the officer’s sentence to three years in prison.

Unfair Convictions
The BICI reported that during the state of emergency imposed by the king from March 15 to June 1, 2011 security forces arrested nearly 3,000 protesters and bystanders and prosecutors brought hundreds before military courts.

A Human Rights Watch investigation based on court documents and interviews with defense lawyers and others found serious due process violations that included denial of the right to counsel and failure to investigate credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment during interrogation.The BICI report said that it “received evidence indicating that, in some cases, judicial and prosecutorial personnel may have implicitly condoned” the lack of accountability.

The BICI concluded that approximately 300 people were convicted by military courts solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. Bahrain’s Public Prosecution Office acknowledged that more than 330 defendants had been convicted of crimes relating to the exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

The BICI urged authorities to “commute the sentences of all persons charged with offenses involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence,” and drop any such pending charges. The commission also recommended the review of convictions “where fundamental principles of a fair trial, including prompt and full access to legal counsel and inadmissibility of coerced testimony, were not respected.”

But while the total numbers are unclear, it appears that only a small number of defendants have been released, while many others, including the protest leaders, remain behind bars based on their protest-related activities. On December 12, 2011, AttorneyGeneral Ali bin Fadhl Al Buainain said that authorities had freed 19 defendants convicted solely for “crimes relating to the practice of freedom of expression.” In a March 26, 2012 response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, Attorney General Buainain said that a judicial committee – set up by the Supreme Judicial Council – recommended the release of four more defendants. The attorney-general said in December 2011 that 334 persons would benefit from dropping of free expression charges but it was unclear whether they still faced politicized charges such as “illegal assembly.”

On September 4, the Supreme Appellate Court upheld a military court’s convictions of 21 protest leaders – including eight who were sentenced to life terms and 10 to 15-year terms – for offenses related to the leaders’ exercise of the rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Both the military court and the Supreme Appellate Court explicitly found that the “crimes” committed by these individuals arose from non-violent advocacy for the establishment of a republic in Bahrain.

The Supreme Appellate Court, in justifying its decision to uphold the sentences, asserted that “force in the current case…may be the exercise of force through…the organization of popular demonstrations as a tool to pressure the government.”The BICI found “discernible pattern of mistreatment” against the protest leaders aimed at securing confessions, which formed a significant part of the evidence considered by the court.

In recent months authorities have brought criminal charges against activists and others solely for their exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. On August 16, Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was sentenced to three years in prison for “calling for and participating in illegal gatherings” between January and March 2012. The verdicts provided no indication that Rajab had called for or participated in violence. On September 26, a court sentenced rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja to two months in prison for allegedly ripping a photo of the king.

On October 17, authorities arrested four people and charged them with “insulting” the king in statements they had allegedly posted on Twitter. They were sentenced to between one and six months in prison.

On October 30, the Interior Ministry issued an open-ended ban on all demonstrations, and several days later arrested a human rights defender, Sayed Yusuf al-Muhafadha, for “illegal gathering” after he tried to photograph an injured protester. Al-Muhafadha was released without charge on November 14. The government did issue a permit on November 9 for a public rally by pro-government groups.

On November 6, authorities revoked the Bahraini citizenship of 31 people, including opposition political activists, lawyers, and rights activists, for allegedly “damaging the security of the state.” The move violated international law because it left as many as 25 of the people stateless, and violated the right to due process for all 31, with no formal charges, hearings, or legal proceedings.

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