(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities held a telecommunications engineer incommunicado for five weeks without access to a lawyer or his family, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities failed to provide accurate information on the whereabouts of the engineer, Sayed Alawi, from his arrest on October 24, 2016, until November 27.
Denying a person’s detention or refusing to provide information on a detainee’s whereabouts, places the detainee outside the protection of the law, constitutes an enforced disappearance and should be promptly investigated and those responsible held to account.
“It’s difficult to square the serious violations of basic rights and safeguards in this case with Bahrain’s claims that it protects detainees’ rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever charges Alawi is going to face, his chances of a fair trial look very low and his family’s concerns for his well-being are absolutely justified.”
Alawi’s wife, Majida Nasser, told Human Rights Watch that the family made repeated efforts to learn his whereabouts, which were met with both denials and contradictory and apparently inaccurate replies. The family finally learned of Alawi’s location when he called them on November 27. He said he was being held at the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) headquarters, Bahrain’s main interrogation center, which has been the subject of continuing credible allegations of torture.
On November 29, the Interior Ministry Ombudsman issued a statement that said Alawi’s detention related to alleged violations of Bahrain’s anti-terrorism law.
Alawi, 43, works for the telecommunications company Batelco. His wife said that the family became aware of his detention on October 24 from reports on social media, which indicated that a large group of security forces, including armed police, had arrested him at his workplace in Muharaq.
Later that evening, she said, the family received a phone call from officers at Budaiya police station informing them that authorities were holding Alawi at the directorate’s headquarters in Manama, but when they went to the headquarters on October 26, officers there would not confirm they were holding Alawi there. On November 3, Alawi’s family received a phone call from a CID officer, informing them that Alawi was in Dry Dock detention center, but when his sister attempted to visit him on November 6, officers there denied holding Alawi.
Nasser said that the family made repeated phone calls to both sites in the days and weeks that followed, but that officers either did not respond or denied having Alawi in their custody.
She said that when the family received a call from Alawi himself on November 27, he sounded “exhausted,” and said he was being held at the CID. Alawi made a second phone call to his family on December 14.
Nasser said the family is aware of the allegations of torture at the directorate’s facilities and expressed concerns for her husband’s well-being. Mohamed al-Tajer, a lawyer appointed by the family, has yet to be allowed see his client and said that the office of the public prosecutor failed to respond to his request to be present during Alawi’s questioning on October 31.
Nasser said she has submitted numerous complaints to various official bodies, including those with a specific mandate to protect detainees’ rights. They include two formal written complaints to the Interior Ministry Ombudsman, on October 25 and December 1; a written complaint to the Interior Ministry’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) on December 3; a written complaint to the Office of the Public Prosecutor on November 10; and a verbal complaint to the National Institute of Human Rights on November 17.
The Ombudsman, which receives and directs complaints relating to detainee mistreatment, and the SIU, which by law must investigate complaints of torture, were established in response to the recommendations of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), appointed by King Hamad in 2011 to investigate allegations of human rights abuses related to the anti-government protests earlier that year.
In November 2011, the commission released an approximately 500-page report detailing its findings, and concluded among other things, that the National Security Agency and the Interior Ministry “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 November 2015, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting that Bahraini security forces, notably officers working at the CID, were continuing to torture detainees using methods documented in the commission report. Nine former detainees at the directorate told Human Rights Watch that they remained handcuffed and blindfolded throughout their time there – typically several days – except when they were making videotaped confessions they said were coerced, and that the abuses included beatings, electric shocks, and sexual assault.
In February 2014, a group of 97 Bahraini lawyers submitted a memorandum to the vice-president of the Supreme Judiciary Council “to highlight several significant obstacles facing lawyers and preventing them defending their clients.” Some of these obstacles appear to have the effect of circumventing the legislative safeguards against torture in Bahrain.
Enforced disappearances and torture are both strictly prohibited by international law and are not permitted in any circumstances. Bahraini authorities should demonstrate absolutely zero tolerance for both practices and thoroughly and impartially investigate allegations of either, ensuring that anyone found to have carried out torture is held to account and that victims have access to a remedy.