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(Beirut) – Credible and consistent allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees in Bahrain during 2015 undermined claims of reform, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. The Bahraini government and its allies, chiefly the United Kingdom, have contended that new institutions established by Bahrain are effectively protecting detainees from abuse during interrogation.

Authorities prosecuted rights activists and political opposition figures during 2015 solely for speech-related offenses and subjected them to unfair trials. The government used repressive new legislation to arbitrarily strip dissidents of their Bahraini citizenship, in some cases leaving them stateless.

“Bahraini authorities have failed to stop torture and failed to address the culture of impunity that fosters torture,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The much-ballyhooed reforms will remain false advertising until Bahrain stops jailing activists and opposition leaders, holds officers accountable for serious abuses like torture, and gets serious about judicial and security service reform.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

People who had been detained at the Criminal Investigations Directorate between 2013 and 2015 described a range of torture methods, including electric shock, prolonged suspension in painful positions, severe beatings, threats to rape and kill, forced standing, exposure to extreme cold, and sexual abuse.

Bahrain established new institutions designed to curb the use of torture in response to a report commissioned by the government to examine abuses of protesters during demonstrations in 2011 related to the upheaval throughout the Middle East. But the government is still failing to hold security forces and high officials accountable for torture and serious mistreatment of people in custody.

Since 2011, there has only been one successful prosecution for torture, which resulted in six convictions in a case relating to allegations of drug dealing. However, there have been no convictions for torture in cases relating to Bahrain’s political unrest, although the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) called for “appropriate prosecution” in torture and mistreatment cases to tackle what it called a “pattern of impunity.”

In June 2015, a court convicted Sheikh Ali Salman, secretary general of the country’s largest legally recognized opposition political society, Al Wifaq, of speech-related charges and sentenced him to four years in prison. The presiding judge refused to allow Sheikh Salman’s defense lawyers to present potentially exculpatory evidence, including recordings of the speeches for which he was prosecuted.

In July, authorities released Ebrahim Sharif from prison nine months before the end of a five-year sentence for his role in leading peaceful street protests in 2011. Two weeks later, they re-arrested Sharif, secretary general of the opposition National Democratic Action Society, for allegedly encouraging the government’s overthrow and “inciting hatred” in a speech that consisted solely of peaceful criticism of the government and calls for political reform.

Also in July 2015, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa pardoned the prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab for health reasons, two months after a court of appeal upheld his six-month sentence for “offending national institutions” after he criticized the government on social media. Rajab may still face charges that relate to other critical comments he made on social media.

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