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(Beirut) – The latest annual report from a Bahrain office tasked with addressing torture and mistreatment of detainees indicates that authorities have made little progress in holding police and security forces accountable.

The third annual report from the Office of the Ombudsman, released on June 1, 2016, indicates that there have been no convictions in alleged cases of torture relating to political unrest since the Office of the Ombudsman was set up to accept complaints in February 2012. The report provides further evidence that the ombudsman routinely refers torture allegations to the Interior Ministry’s Special Investigation Unit, but does not indicate whether that body has taken even limited steps to investigate these complaints.

“This third report from the Ombudsman’s office underscores the serious inadequacy of Bahrain’s highly-touted efforts to end torture by its security forces,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Torture has not stopped in Bahrain, and the institutions that were supposed to address the problem aren’t holding anyone accountable.”

The report contains no information on the status of 15 complaints relating to the alleged torture of inmates by prison officials after unrest in Jaw Prison in March 2015. In the meantime, 57 inmates involved in the unrest have each been sentenced to 15 years.

This third report from the Ombudsman’s office underscores the serious inadequacy of Bahrain’s highly-touted efforts to end torture by its security forces. Torture has not stopped in Bahrain, and the institutions that were supposed to address the problem aren’t holding anyone accountable.
Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director

The Office of the Ombudsman, under the Ministry of Interior and Islamic Affairs, is responsible for receiving complaints from detainees, their families, and human rights organizations and referring them to the appropriate investigating authorities. In the period covered by this report, May 1, 2015 to April 30, 2016, it received 992 “investigation requests,” 305 of which it classified as “complaints”. Fifty-five of those concerned allegations of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and were referred to the Special Investigations Unit. The Ombudsman’s report states that 53 of the 55 torture allegations are “under investigation,” one case is “pending in court,” and one case was “dismissed” or “closed”.

The Special Investigations Unit in the Interior Ministry’s Office of the Public Prosecutor, like the Ombudsman’s Office, was established following the 2011 brutal suppression of mostly peaceful anti-government demonstrations. It is responsible for investigating and prosecuting the criminal liability of security or other government officials allegedly involved in the torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees.

Based on the Ombudsman’s three annual reports, it has referred 138 cases to the SIU since July 2013. Of these, the Special Investigations Unit has successfully prosecuted only one torture case, which the Ombudsman’s second annual report characterized as “a vicious assault” on a detainee “in an attempt to force him to confess to drug dealing.”

In August 2015, the Ombudsman, Nawaf al-Mouada, told Human Rights Watch that a “full report” of the cases under investigation would be included in the third annual report, but the latest report included no details on the 73 torture allegations that its first two annual reports classified as being “under investigation.”|

In the aftermath of serious unrest that broke out in Jaw Prison in March 2015, four former detainees told Human Rights Watch security forces subjected prisoners to abuse that would appear to amount to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. In his August 2015 response to Human Rights Watch, the Ombudsman said that his office had met with 156 inmates, and that 15 had filed formal complaints, which had been referred to the SIU “for criminal investigation”.

The Ombudsman’s most recent report states that it referred 24 complaints pertaining to incidents in Jaw Prison for criminal or disciplinary proceedings, but it is not clear if these include the 15 torture allegations that stemmed from the events of March 2015, and there is no information suggesting that there have been any prosecutions for prison staff in relation to those events.

The Ombudsman and the SIU were established in response to the recommendations of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry, appointed by King Hamad to investigate allegations of human rights abuses related to the anti-government protests of 2011. In November 2011, the BICI released an approximately 500-page report detailing its findings, and concluded among other things, that the National Security Agency and the Ministry of Interior “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody.”

In response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in April 2015, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) stated that the UK has provided the Bahraini authorities with a package of technical assistance, funding, and training, “focused on strengthening the oversight mechanisms responsible for investigating allegations of torture and mistreatment and supporting the reform of detention procedures in Bahrain.”

In November 2015, and in light of serious ongoing allegations of torture – much of it in Criminal Investigations Directorate custody – Human Rights Watch recommended that the UK government suspend its support for security sector reform until Bahrain responded positively to the request of the United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, to visit the country. In April 2013, authorities cancelled Mendez’s scheduled country visit after postponing an earlier visit scheduled for 2012. In June 2016, Mendez told a journalist that Bahrain considered itself “shielded” from scrutiny because of its close relationships with the UK and the US.

There is also evidence that the Ombudsman’s office has sent misinformation to the UK government. Tobias Ellwood, a UK FCO minister, in a written response to a question on the alleged torture of 32-year-old Mohamed Ramadan in Bahrain custody, told UK Member of Parliament Tom Brake that UK embassy officials had been in contact with the Ombudsman’s Office over the case. Ellwood’s response said that the Ombudsman’s office had said that “whilst there have been a number of complaints raised with his office in the case of Mr. Ramadan, there have been no allegations of mistreatment or torture.”

But Human Rights Watch has seen a copy of the complaint that Americans for Human Rights and Democracy in Bahrain submitted by email to the Ombudsman on July 17, 2014. The complaint contains serious allegations of torture of Ramadan consistent with the allegations about the use of torture documented by the BICI in 2011, and in a November 2015 Human Rights Watch report on torture in detention.

On December 29, 2014, a Bahraini court sentenced Ramadan and Husain al-Moosa to death for their alleged role in an explosion that killed a policeman in February 2014. Both men retracted their confessions, claiming that they confessed after being tortured in the custody of the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID). Despite this, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation upheld the death sentences on November 16, 2015, and the two men are awaiting an execution date.

The men’s lawyer, Mohamed al-Tajer, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have never investigated their torture allegations and there is no mention of the case in any of the Ombudsman’s reports.

“The fact that a UK minister has apparently repeated misinformation from the Bahrain Ombudsman’s Office in relation to torture allegations in a case that could result in the executions of two young men should lead to an immediate UK reappraisal of its Bahrain policy,” Stork said.

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