Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace, imprisoned Bahraini academic, political activist, and human rights defender continues his hunger strike for the fifth consecutive month, which he started on 8 July 2021 to protest against ill-treatment and harassment in Jau Prison. Dr. al-Singace resorted to a hunger strike after negotiations with the prison administration had failed to recover the book he had worked on for four years. The prison authorities confiscated his book on 9 April 2021, and they have since refused to return the book to Dr. al-Singace or his family, although it is a study of Bahraini dialects and culture without any political content.
On 22 June 2011, the National Safety Court, a military court, sentenced Dr. al-Singace to life imprisonment on terrorism-related charges for his role in the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. He is one of a group called “Bahrain 13” consisting of prominent opposition figures and human rights defenders, seven of whom were handed down life terms for allegedly “setting up terror groups to topple the royal regime and change the constitution.” The National Safety Court of Appeals, also a military court, confirmed his conviction and upheld the sentence on 29 September 2011.
The Bahraini government has carried out a widespread crackdown on dissidents in the aftermath of the 14 February 2011 uprising. During the “National Safety State,” declared by the King, security forces killed dozens of protesters and arrested and tortured hundreds. Civilians were tried before military courts. Bahrainis’ rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association were severely restricted. In response to the international outcry and as an attempt to pacify the domestic agitation, the King of Bahrain ordered the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), consisting of international lawyers and human rights experts, to investigate and report on the February/ March 2011 events.
The BICI report determined that the Bahraini Public Security Forces used “unnecessary and excessive force” against protesters, practiced systematic torture and mistreatment against individuals in their custody, and subjected them to coercion in signing confessions, which were subsequently used in criminal proceedings, among other due process violations. It concluded that “the lack of accountability of officials within the security system in Bahrain has led to a culture of impunity.”
Torture and arbitrary detention
Dr. al-Singace is arbitrarily detained. He was tortured in public security custody, and no proper investigation has been conducted by the authorities in his torture allegations, nor has any measures been taken to provide redress.
Dr. al-Singace’s deprivation of liberty was due to exercising his rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and his trial did not observe international standards of a fair trial, rendering his detention arbitrary. The court convicted Dr. al-Singace and other members of “Bahrain 13” for establishing “a terror group to topple the government,” “promoting regime change,” “spreading false information and rumors,” and “illegal assembly,” although the Military Prosecution failed to provide any evidence that the accused used or advocated violence during the 2011 protests to overthrow the government. The main incriminating evidence in the case before the High Criminal Court of Appeal (civilian court) was the “confession of two defendants, allegedly obtained under torture and testimonies from officers allegedly involved in the defendants’ torture.” Dr. al-Singace was convicted and sentenced for exercising rights guaranteed in Articles 23, 27, and 28 of the Bahrain Constitution; Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR); Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bahrain is a state party since 2006.
Anti-terrorism legal provisions have been excessively invoked against political prisoners in Bahrain since 2011. According to the law, terrorism involves the use of “unlawful means (…) with the aim of disrupting public order or threatening the Kingdom’s safety and security or damaging national unity.” These vague and poorly defined terms have been instrumentalized by the government to crush dissent. In its attempt to justify its decision in the “Bahrain 13” case, the High Criminal Court of Appeal argued that “the force need not necessarily be military because terrorism can be the result of moral pressure.” Such judicial reasoning exemplifies the exploitation of vaguely-worded legal provisions to criminalize and punish dissent. Moreover, the term “unlawful means” is problematic because it can be participation in unauthorized peaceful assemblies or joining unlicensed peaceful political groups.
The Bahraini authorities denied Dr. al-Singace due process rights, as he was held incommunicado after arrest for a prolonged period, denied proper access to legal counsel, and was convicted based on coerced confessions. The BICI found that “a pattern of due process violations occurred at the pre-trial and trial levels that denied most defendants elementary fair trial guarantees.” After a comprehensive review of court records and interviewing scores of defendants, Human Rights Watch has come to the same conclusion. Pursuant to the BICI recommendations No. 1720, a large number of cases were transferred from the National Safety Courts to civilian courts, including the “Bahrain 13” case. However, the civilian courts depended on the records and evidence used by the military courts, including coerced confessions, where on 4 September 2012, the High Criminal Court of Appeal upheld the verdict, and the Cassation Court confirmed it on 6 January 2013, both are civilian courts.
Dr. al-Singace is arbitrarily detained in contravention of Articles 19, 20, 23, 27, and 28 of the Bahrain Constitution; Articles 10, 11, 19, and 20 of the UDHR; Articles 9, 14, 19, 21, and 22 of the ICCPR.
According to Dr. al-Singace testimony to the BICI, he was tortured and ill-treated at security forces custody after his arrest on 17 March 2011. He was placed in incommunicado detention for two months in al-Qurain prison, beaten with hands and shoes, verbally abused and threatened, sexually molested, and subjected to degrading treatment.
The Bahraini Constitution and Criminal law explicitly prohibit torture and ill-treatment. While the law grants the Attorney-General the jurisdiction over torture allegations and complaints, it does not oblige him to investigate them. Moreover, the impartiality and independence of the Attorney-General are questionable. Politically motivated prosecutions, such as the case of Dr. al-Singace, have regularly been used to silence dissidents and intimidate government opponents, and the Attorney-General has played a key role in this. The Public Prosecution Office (PPO) has brought charges against individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, accepted coerced confessions through torture, and condoned allegations of torture and ill-treatment. The Special Investigation Unit (SIU), which is mandated to determine the criminal responsibility of government officials engaged in torture or mistreatment of civilians, is part of the PPO hierarchy and functions under the Attorney-General supervision, adversely affecting its independence. Many UN human rights bodies have expressed concern over Bahrain government oversight bodies’ independence and impartiality, including the SIU.
The Bahrain government has failed to carry out its obligations under both domestic and international law. It has not been able to properly investigate Dr. al-Singace torture allegations and provide redress nor to hundreds of other torture victims in violation of Articles 19 and 20 of the Bahrain Constitution; Articles 44 and 63 of Bahrain Code of Criminal Procedures; Articles 208 and 232 of Bahrain Penal Code; Articles 5 and 8 of UDHR; Articles 7, 9, and 10 of the ICCPR. The government has also violated its obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified in 1998 and 2011, respectively.
Ill-treatment and denial of proper medical attention in prison
Dr. Al-Singace has many health conditions that require special medical attention, including post-polio syndrome and sickle cell anemia, in addition to episodes of vertigo, numbness in the extremities, and shortness of breath. The current hunger strike has led to a severe drop in his white blood cell count and a loss of more than 20 kg of his weight. His glucose and oxygen levels have been frequently dropping, which necessitated his transfer to the al-Qalaa Hospital of the Ministry of Interior and then to the Kanoo Health Center, where he is currently being held.
The current hunger strike is not the first by Dr. al-Singace to protest the ill-treatment in Jau Prison. In the aftermath of the riots that broke out in Jau Prison on 10 March 2015, the prison administration carried out a weeks-long campaign of collective punishment, including indiscriminate beatings, sleep deprivation, forced standing, starvation, and verbal abuse. In protest against the practices of the prison administrators, on 21 March 2015, Dr. al-Singace began a hunger strike that lasted nearly 11 months.
Dr. al-Singace began the current hunger strike after two months of negotiations with the prison administration failed to return his book about Bahraini dialects and culture, on which he worked for four years. The prison authorities confiscated the book on 9 April 2021 and sent it to the Ministry of Interior for a legal review. Although on 8 November the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) reported that Dr. al-Singace’s book had undergone a legal review and that it had been determined to be “apolitical,” the Bahraini authorities are still refusing to hand it over to his family.
The Bahraini law, under Article 51 of the Reform and Rehabilitation Institution Law of 2014, empowers prison authorities to inspect and seize items “whose acquisition or possession constitutes a legally punishable crime or a violation of the institution’s bylaws and regulations.” It is unclear how authoring or possessing a book on Bahraini dialects and culture would contravene Jau prison’s regulations. Moreover, Article 26 of the law states that the prison administration may grant inmates cash and non-cash awards for certain achievements, including carrying out distinguished research. Therefore, there is no legal justification for not handing the book over to Dr. al-Singace’s family especially since the Ministry of Interior has determined that the book is “apolitical.”
The prison authorities have also repeatedly denied Dr. al-Singace medical treatment for his pre-existing health conditions. Dr. al-Singace’s family expressed concern that he is suffering “from vertigo episodes, where he feels dizzy and falls,” and the prison authorities are denying him specialized medical attention. They also maintained that the prison authorities have refused for months to replace the rubber stoppers for his crutches. The slippery rubber stoppers have caused him to fall on multiple occasions; however, Dr. al-Singace’s requests for a replacement remained unanswered. Also, Dr. al-Singace reported to his family that prison guards eavesdrop on his phone calls and keep him under constant surveillance, preventing him from sleeping.
The Reform and Rehabilitation Institution Law of 2014 obligates the prison authorities to “take the necessary measures to ensure the inmates’ health” including “transferring inmates and prisoners in pretrial detention to public or private hospitals if such measure is required.” Denying Dr. al-Singace from the specialized health attention that he needs is a violation of Articles 28, 29, and 30 of Bahrain’s Reform and Rehabilitation Institution Law of 2014; Article 25 of the UDHR, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, ratified by Bahrain in 2007; Articles 25 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The prison authorities’ refusal to provide Dr. al-Singace with new rubber stoppers for his mobility aid is a violation of Bahrain’s international obligations under Article 20 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Resolution No. 131 of 2015 on the Implementation of the Reform and Rehabilitation Institution Law of 2014 allows the prison administration to “monitor all phone calls made or received by inmates’ and does not give the inmates the right to object to this measure. The law grants the prison administration discretionary powers in this regard without any restrictions and guarantees to prisoners’ right to privacy in contravention of Article 26 of the Bahraini Constitution, which stipulates “communications shall not be censored or their confidentiality breached except in exigencies specified by law and in accordance with procedures and under guarantees prescribed by law.”
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as Mandela Rules, set out that “prisoners shall be allowed, under necessary supervision, to communicate with their family and friends at regular intervals;” however, “under necessary supervision” usually entails visual control in low-security settings. Accordingly, nothing justifies breaching Dr. al-Singace’s right to privacy and eavesdropping on his communication with family members.
The harassment of Dr. al-Singace at Jau prison is part of the systematic mistreatment of political prisoners in Bahrain, particularly the leaders of the 2011 pro-democracy movement. Since his arrest, Dr. al-Singace has many times refused to attend family visits and medical appointments because of shackling that he perceives as degrading treatment. The prison authorities arbitrarily cut visiting hours and the time for phone calls with relatives. They have also confiscated his academic and religious books on multiple occasions.
In addition to overcrowding, the sanitary conditions in Jau prison are poor, and the hygiene and sterilization procedures are inadequate, which led to the outbreak of Covid-19 inside the prison in April 2021. The prison authorities also impose many restrictions on family visits, including unnecessary glass barriers that disturb many inmates, conducting humiliating searches for visitors, and sometimes canceling family visits without justification before family visits were completely canceled under the pretext of Covid-19. Physical and psychological torture is also used systematically.
The office of the Ombudsman at the Ministry of Interior (MoI Ombudsman) is mandated to ensure that the MOI personnel abide by the legal procedures by visiting detention centers, receiving complaints against members of Bahrain’s security forces, and initiating investigations into police misconduct allegations. On 19 July 2021, a statement of the MoI Ombudsman said that Dr. al-Singace’s book may be handed over to the family pending legal review unless it contains anything that violates the press and intellectual property laws; however, after more than four months, the book has yet to be delivered. The MoI Ombudsman also denied any wrongdoing on the part of the prison administration.
It has to be noted that many questions have been raised about the MoI Ombudsman’s effectiveness and impartiality in Bahrain. The MoI Ombudsman head and staff are not only unelected, as recommended by the Venice Principles, but also appointed and dismissed upon the approval of the Minister of Interior whom they are supposed to hold accountable. Since it became operational in July 2013, it has not been able to carry out effective investigations and hold Bahraini security forces to account concerning credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody, nor uphold the principle of superior responsibility.
Dr. al-Singace is a prisoner of conscience who has been arbitrarily detained for a decade. He is being ill-treated and harassed in prison where he should have not been. On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we call on the Bahraini authorities to
- uphold their international obligations and release Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace and all prisoners of conscience in Bahrain;
- impartially investigate Dr. al-Singace allegations of torture and ill-treatment and hold those responsible accountable;
- immediately provide Dr. al-Singace with the specialized medical attention he needs.