(Beirut) – Statements by the Bahrain Interior Ministry and Social Development Ministry following a visit by Human Rights Watch representatives to Bahrain the week of February 24-28, 2013, make unfounded claims, Human Rights Watch said. On February 28, at the conclusion of the visit, Human Rights Watch held a news conference in Manama to report its findings and issued a news release.
On March 2, the Interior Ministry issued a statement, widely covered by Bahraini media, claiming that Human Rights Watch had misrepresented what ministry officials said in meetings earlier in the week, contravened privacy and security restrictions in publishing photos and videos of meetings with political prisoners, and ignored significant reforms by the ministry in response to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report. Also on March 2, the Social Development Ministry issued a separate statement contending that references to the ministry in the Human Rights Watch news release were “biased” and “deceptive.”
The Interior Ministry statement provided no example of any alleged misrepresentation. Instead, the statement repeats, as did ministry officials in the meetings, that revised policing rules are in place governing, for instance, the use of teargas; that officials have appointed an ombudsman; and that individual police officers have come under investigation for alleged abuses as evidence of reforms they have made. The news conference and news release acknowledged a number of reforms, including establishment of the ombudsman’s office.
Human Rights Watch made clear, however, that the primary concern is not with the rules but with high-level accountability for the serious abuses and mistakes in policing that the ministry acknowledged took place.
Human Rights Watch concluded that there had been no progress on two key issues. One is the conviction and continued incarceration of protest leaders solely for exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.
The other, which directly concerns the Interior Ministry, is Bahrain’s failure to hold accountable any high officials in the Interior Ministry, the National Security Agency, or the Bahrain Defense Forces for serious human rights crimes such as torture and unlawful killings by security forces. These agencies, to cite the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report, operated in a “culture of impunity” and the crimes “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure.”
Human Rights Watch questioned whether the ministry had carried out internal investigations leading to criminal prosecutions and/or disciplinary measures against any high-ranking officials. The interior minister made clear that ministry officials had found no wrongdoing or failure by any official above the rank of battalion commander, and that in the ministry’s view, all cases wrongdoing amounted to “mistakes” by individual officers but not systemic failures of command and control and accountability. Human Rights Watch repeatedly confirmed this point with the interior minister and the police chief to make sure that the Human Rights Watch report of the meeting would accurately represent their statements.
Photos and Videos of Prisoners
Human Rights Watch expressed appreciation at the news conference and in the news release for the ministry’s cooperation in facilitating meetings with the political prisoners. With regard to the photos of prisoners with whom Human Rights Watch met, each one signed a government-prepared release stating that they had no objection to Human Rights Watch taking their photos. Officials raised no security or other concerns at the time regarding the use of the photos or videos.
Ministry of Social Development Allegations
Human Rights Watch said in its news release that the meeting with officials from the Social Development Ministry was highly unsatisfactory, based on responses to questions Human Rights Watch raised about the draft law on associations.
The ministry’s statement refers to a draft law on associations that was under discussion in 2006-2008 but never brought into force. Human Rights Watch has said publicly on numerous occasions that this early draft contained improvements on the present law. In the February 27 meeting, Human Rights Watch asked the ministry officials why the draft currently before parliament bears no resemblance to this earlier draft, and represents a major step backward from even the law presently in force. Although the officials who met with Human rights Watch were among those responsible for preparing the current draft law, they were unable or unwilling to discuss the law in the meeting, address the questions, or provide a copy of the draft law.
Human Rights Watch hopes that Bahrain will soon resume its policy, discontinued in 2011, of allowing independent human rights monitors to enter the country and to monitor human rights developments, including getting the perspective of officials and others about progress in meeting human rights obligations.