(Beirut) – Bahraini investigations into two recent deaths, including a May 22, 2014 incident in which security forces shot and fatally wounded a 14-year-old boy, should be swift, thorough, and impartial. Authorities should prosecute in good faith anyone found responsible for unlawful use of force in that incident as well as the incident on February 23 that left a 28 year old with injuries that led to his death on April 18. His body remains in the mortuary because his family is refusing to sign a death certificate that makes no mention of the gunshot wounds to the head that doctors told them killed him.
Security forces apparently shot Sayed Mahmood after they had dispersed thousands of people in a funeral procession in the village of Kharijya on the evening of May 22. A hospital death certificate, three witness accounts, images of the fatal wound, and a forensic pathologist’s expert opinion indicate that Mahmood’s death was the result of an unlawful use of excessive lethal force and that he had posed no threat to the security forces. Abdulaziz al-Abar’s father told Human Rights Watch that doctors at Salmaniya Hospital informed him on February 23 that his son needed surgery to remove “pellets that had gone inside his brain” but that a medical certificate issued on his death on April 18 mentioned only “brain damage,” and staff are refusing to state what caused the injury. Local rights groups report that al-Abar was struck on the head by a tear gas canister and shot in the head with birdshot at a protest in the village of Saar. In response to queries from Human Rights Watch on June 6 and June 11, Bahraini authorities confirmed they had opened investigations into both deaths.
“Bahraini authorities claim its security forces have reformed since they used lethal force and killed 13 unarmed protestors in the 2011 uprising, but the deaths of Sayed Mahmood and Abdulaziz al-Abar raise serious questions about how much has changed,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In the case of Abdulaziz al-Abar, authorities should act immediately to ensure the proper cause of death is recorded on his death certificate so that his body can be returned to his grieving family for burial.”
Sayed Mahmood’s death certificate states that he died from multiple birdshot wounds from a shotgun that penetrated his heart and lungs. Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a security officer shot Mahmood from a range of three to four meters as he was running. A forensic pathologist who examined photos of the fatal wounds at the request of Human Rights Watch said that Mahmood appeared to have been killed by a round of birdshot fired from less than six meters away by someone facing the boy.
Human Rights Watch spoke with two people who said they witnessed the fatal shot. One said he had been part of a large funeral procession moving peacefully from the village of Wadiwan to Kharijya and back. He said that at approximately 5:20 p.m. security forces in at least five armored police vehicles confronted the crowd, which then scattered. A third person said he had been in a group of five to seven people, including Mahmood, who fled when the police fired tear gas and birdshot in their direction, but that he did not see the shooting. All three requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The first witness said many protesters were running through alleyways to escape the armored vehicles, which were too wide to pursue them. He said that three police officers left their vehicle and ran up an alleyway. When Mahmood appeared at the end of the alleyway, one of the officers shot him without warning from a distance of two-and-a-half to three meters, the person said. He said he was about 50 meters away from the incident.
The other witness said he was 15 meters from the incident. He said that two officers and a third dressed differently, in what he described as “a commando uniform,” got out of an armored vehicle. Two moved up the alleyway carrying shotguns, he said, and the man in commando uniform fired one shot as Mahmood came into view, with no warning. The witness estimated that the shooter was between three and four meters from Mahmood when he fired.
The third person said he had seen nothing in Mahmood’s hand when they were together moments before Mahmood’s death.
The opinion of Derrick Pounder, a forensic pathologist who has testified as an expert witness at the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court, among others, supports the witness accounts. Based on four photo images of the wounds, Pounder said that the fatal shot was fired from a distance of three to six meters as Mahmood faced the police. He said that in a crowd control context, birdshot is not intended to be lethal, but that when fired at distances of less than six meters it can be.
The two witnesses said that after the shooting, a group of police officers surrounded Mahmood and prevented Kharijya residents from approaching. They did not see the officers giving any medical assistance to Mahmood. The second witness said that a local resident managed to reach Mahmood and carried him to a nearby house, where the witness tried to administer first aid. But when it became obvious how badly injured Mahmood was, the residents put him in a car and drove him to Sitra Hospital.
Mahmood’s death certificate states that he died at 7:25 p.m. from gunshot wounds on the left chest that penetrated his lungs and heart.
Mahmood’s uncle said through an intermediary that the boy had been in intermediate school, where he was a good student. The uncle said that Mahmood had never been arrested before and loved taking photographs as a hobby. “He was a quiet and sweet boy, beloved by everyone,” the uncle was quoted as saying
The father of Abdulaziz al-Abar told Human Rights Watch that he was not aware of the circumstances that led to his son’s injury, but that when he went to Salmaniya Hospital on February 23, 2014, a doctor there told him that his son required surgery to remove “pellets” from his brain. The same doctors subsequently told him that the operation had been unsuccessful and Abdulaziz died on May 18. His father says he will not sign the death certificate until it makes reference to the gunshot wounds that medical staff told him killed his son. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bahrain is required to protect and respect the right to life. Its security forces 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.”
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), appointed to investigate official conduct during anti-government 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 direct result of a BICI recommendation, Bahrain set up the Office of the Ombudsman in the Interior Ministry “to ensure compliance with professional standards of policing set forth in the Code of Conduct for the Police” and to report misconduct to the ministry and any criminal acts to the public prosecutor.
On June 9, 2014, the Office of the Ombudsman responded to a Human Rights Watch query by saying that it had forwarded all documentation relating to Mahmood’s death to the Special Investigations Unit within the Office of the Public Prosecutor. Ombudsman officials said that they were following the progress of the investigation and that the ombudsman “reserves the right to reopen and pursue the case for disciplinary proceedings if the case is closed or not upheld.” On June 11, they responded identically to a request for information on the death of Abdulaziz al-Abar.
On January 30, Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to investigate the fatal shooting of Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon, who died from a gunshot wound in the back of the head after police fired at the car he was driving. A recent report from the ombudsman said that incident is also being investigated by the Special Investigations Unit.
The BICI report attributed 13 deaths to the security forces, seven described as “death from the use of a shotgun.” The recent Bahraini Ombudsman’s report states that the death of a man identified as Mr. K. at Salmaniya hospital on April 18 was the result of birdshot wounds and says that the Special Investigations Unit has opened a criminal investigation. In April 2012 a protester, Salah Abbas Habib, died from birdshot wounds. On November 24, 2013, a Bahraini court acquitted the officer accused in his death.
A May 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented that members of security forces in Bahrain are rarely prosecuted for unlawful killings, including deaths in detention, and the few convictions have carried extremely light sentences.
“If Bahraini security forces feared going to jail for their actions, it’s far less likely they would shoot children at close range with shotguns,” Stork said.