(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should urgently open an independent and impartial investigation into a January 8, 2014 incident in which police officers shot and fatally wounded one man and seriously injured a 17-year-old boy. Authorities should make the results public and explain why they did not inform the victims’ families of their injuries or their whereabouts for more than two weeks.
According to a death certificate issued by the Bahrain Defense Force military hospital, Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon, 19, died from a “traumatic cerebral oedema” on January 8. Photos of his body show what appears to be a gunshot wound in the back of the head, but the location of the entry wound appears to contradict a January 26 Interior Ministry statement saying that Marhoon was driving an “oncoming car” at police officers in the town of Markh and that the police fired at the car in self-defense.
“If Bahraini security forces want to fix the reputation they have for covering up abuses, they should promptly investigate the conduct of the officers who fired the fatal shots at Fadhel Marhoon and seriously wounded a 17-year-old boy,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The Interior Ministry needs to explain why it didn’t say a word to the victims’ frantic families about their missing sons for more than two weeks.”
Authorities did not alert Marhoon’s family or inform them of his whereabouts until they announced his death on January 25. Nor did the authorities notify the family of Sadeq al-Asafoor, 17, whom the police shot, seriously injured, and detained in the same incident, until January 23, when they transferred him out of a military hospital to a clinic at the Interior Ministry headquarters.
A third person involved in the incident, Ali Abd al-Amir Khamis, was not injured. On January 29, a court charged him with planting explosives that injured police officers. A lawyer engaged by his family told Human Rights Watch that authorities have prevented him from seeing his client. Family members who visited al-Amir in prison on January 29 told Human Rights Watch that after the incident he spent 20 days in detention at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) headquarters, where he says he was tortured.
The Interior Ministry statement says that the shooting of Marhoon and al-Asafoor was linked to a highly publicized incident in which the government alleges that unnamed people attempted to smuggle weapons and explosives into Bahrain by boat. The statement says of the shooting:
There were two suspects in the building when police arrived. While the two were trying to flee in their car, the driver, Fadhel Abbas, attempted to run over the policemen despite being repeatedly warned, both verbally and by warning shots. Finally, police were compelled to use their weapons to defend themselves and stop the oncoming car.
A member of al-Asafoor’s family told Human Rights Watch that he went to visit a friend in the village of Markh at around 9 p.m. on January 8. What happened leading up to the shooting is not clear. The family member who visited al-Amir in Jau prison on the morning of January 29 told Human Rights Watch that al-Amir claims that he and his two friends were caught in a police trap.
The police shot al-Asafoor when he left the car, apparently to collect something, based on the relative’s account from al-Amir. Al-Amir and Marhoon fled the scene in a car under fire from police, but returned later to look for al-Asafoor. A police jeep then rammed their car, forcing it to stop, and the police fired multiple shots into the vehicle, killing Marhoon.
This account of events as well as the photos of Marhoon’s fatal wound call into question the Interior Ministry’s narrative. The photos Human Rights Watch examined appear to show a bullet wound 1 centimeter in diameter in the back of Marhoon’s head. No bullet wound is visible on the front of his head. The death certificate states that the cause of death, at 11:30 p.m. on January 25, was an “intracranial injury” that caused a “traumatic cerebral oedema” but it makes no reference to a gunshot.
Family members visited al-Asafoor on January 24 in the al-Qala’a clinic at Interior Ministry headquarters. They told Human Rights Watch they saw what appeared to be gunshot injuries on his lower torso. They later told Human Rights Watch that plainclothes officials at the clinic warned the family not to discuss the incident that led to his injuries or they would prevent them from making further visits. They added that security officials supervised their visit and did not permit them to meet with medical personnel responsible for treating their son.
Had Marhoon been driving an oncoming car toward police officers, it would seem likely that any shots they fired in self-defense would have struck him in the front of his head, not the back.
“The families’ accounts of the incident, if true, indicate that Marhoon’s death may have constituted an extrajudicial execution,” Stork said. “Police may have had legitimate reasons for wanting to apprehend these three men, but it does not appear that they had any legitimate cause to shoot them.”
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, appointed to investigate official conduct during antigovernment protests in 2011, concluded that: “police units used force against civilians in a manner that was both unnecessary and disproportionate. This was due, at least partially, to inadequate training of field units [and] ineffectual command and control systems...”
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bahrain is required to protect and respect the right to life. It should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which state that lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable, to protect life, and must be exercised with restraint and proportionality. The principles require governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law.”
A family member told Human Rights Watch that the authorities consistently refused to acknowledge they were holding Marhoon or al-Asafoor, or inform either of the families of their relatives’ whereabouts or well-being. In the days following the incident, the family member said, al-Asafoor’s family went to Salmaniya medical center, the Bahrain Defense Force military hospital, and the Office of the Public Prosecutor to ask if al-Asafoor was injured or in custody. All denied holding him or any knowledge of his whereabouts.
On January 12, a staff member at the military hospital told the family that al-Asafoor was in custody at the hospital and stable, but the following day staff there again denied he was in the hospital.
International law classifies authorities’ refusal to acknowledge the fact they are detaining persons, or their whereabouts, as enforced disappearance. The authorities should explain why they failed to inform the family of a grievously injured child of his whereabouts and life-threatening injuries, even though the family was actively searching for him.
Al-Amir made a brief phone call to his family in the week after the shooting. The family contacted a Bahraini lawyer, who filed a written application to represent al-Amir and submitted it to the public prosecutor on January 13. The public prosecutor informed him that he would be unable to speak to his client until after an initial trial hearing on January 29, where he is to face charges of attacking a police officer, the lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
Neither Bahrain’s Criminal Procedure Law, nor its 2006 counterterrorism law, make provision for refusing access to a lawyer in such a way. This would be a violation of fair trial rights guaranteed by Bahrain’s constitution as well as international human rights law.