“Torturers must never be allowed to get away with their crimes, and systems that enable torture should be dismantled or transformed.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres
The Bahraini authorities’ use of systematic torture has been verified through dozens of local and international human rights reports, notably the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was created and its findings and recommendations adopted by the King himself. The BICI attributed the systematic torture to “the lack of accountability of officials within the security system in Bahrain,” which has led to a “culture of impunity.” As widespread impunity is conducive to more torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the absolute priority of the Bahraini government should have been to punish perpetrators if it was sincere in combating torture. However, the government efforts in the last decade have fallen short of meaningful progress. Creating various oversight bodies and enacting new laws have not brought those involved in torture and ill-treatment to justice. While addressing torture requires strict adherence to the principle of “superior responsibility,” the Bahraini government has completely failed to uphold this principle. Hundreds of torture victims and their families are still waiting for redress and accountability in Bahrain.
Torture has always been one of the Bahraini authorities’ means of dominance and control over the population, even before the independence. Torture reports intensified during periods of political turmoil, specifically against political detainees and prisoners. Most cases of torture occur during interrogations by law enforcement officials for the purpose of extracting confessions or punishment. The last peak of torture cases occurred during and in the aftermath of the 2011 Uprising. The BICI received 559 complaints concerning the mistreatment of persons in custody between 1 July 2011 and 23 November 2011 alone. Later, dozens of torture and ill-treatment cases have been documented by local and international human rights organizations. The Bahraini criminal system enables torture by condoning credible allegations of torture by the Public Prosecution Office (PPO), accepting coerced confessions in courts, establishing non-independent and ineffective oversight bodies, and subsequently not holding perpetrators to account. Even the media plays a role in the lack of accountability by being a propaganda tool for the government.
The Bahraini law gives the PPO jurisdiction over torture crimes. However, over the years, the PPO demonstrated a lack of independence and reluctance to investigate torture and ill-treatment cases and hold perpetrators accountable. Hundreds of people were tortured and ill-treated in detention centers that the PPO was empowered to inspect, and dozens of law enforcement officials who were involved in torture are free and unpunished because of the PPO’s unwillingness to bring them to justice. There have been many reports of the PPO’s blatant disregard of torture allegations during interrogations of detainees. In 2015, Human Rights Watch reported six cases in which detainees reported their torture at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) to the PPO, and not only did the PPO fail to take any action, but it also ordered the return of two of them to the CID after refusing to make confessions. Only one case of those has resulted in an investigation. The BICI report also indicated that, in some cases, “judicial and prosecutorial personnel may have implicitly condoned” the lack of accountability within the security system in Bahrain.
On 31 July 2016, Hassan Jassim Hasan al-Hayky, a 35-year-old Bahraini citizen, died in custody from injuries he sustained during torture at the CID, according to his family. Al-Hayky reported his torture to the PPO, but instead of investigating his allegations, they ordered his return to the CID, where he was “subjected to further acts of torture.” At the time, Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) received information that al-Hayky was allegedly subjected to sexual abuse on 10 July 2016 by officials at the PPO, who forced him to sign a confession. He was denied access to a lawyer during the investigation despite his multiple requests for one, and when his lawyer headed there, he was falsely told that al-Hayky had not yet been brought in. When al-Hayky’s lawyer stated that his deceased client had wounds and bruises on his body, confirming “beyond any doubt the existence of a criminal suspicion behind the death,” the PPO accused him of “spreading false news.” After a quick investigation, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), which operates under the PPO, concluded that the death was due to natural causes. Similarly, the PPO condoned Mohammad Ramadan’s allegation of torture, who was later convicted based on a coerced confession and sentenced to death on 29 December 2014 even though he showed public prosecutor signs of torture on his body.
The PPO has been complicit in torture by accepting coerced confessions during interrogations, condoning allegations of torture, practicing leniency with torture perpetrators, and being part of a system that criminalizes dissent and justifies violence to crush it. In the majority of cases of unlawful killing of civilians by security forces documented by the BICI, some of which were killed under torture, the PPO unacceptably charged the perpetrators with only assault without intent to kill, which resulted in lenient sentences for perpetrators.
In parallel, the Bahraini courts play a role in the systematic torture and widespread impunity in the country. They have accepted coerced confessions even in high-profile cases, like the case of what is called “Bahrain 13.” Moreover, the judicial system has failed to provide redress to dozens of families and victims of security forces’ human rights violations by acquitting many perpetrators of torture and extrajudicial killings and issuing light sentences against the few who were convicted inconsistent with the gravity of their offenses.
In 2012, the BICI chief commented, “you can’t say that justice has been done when calling for Bahrain to be a republic gets you a life sentence and the officer who repeatedly fired on an unarmed man at close range only gets seven years,” referring to the case of Hani Abd al-Aziz Jumaa.
In the case of the February 14 Coalition, fifty individuals were convicted in a mass trial on charges of establishing and joining a “terrorist group.” The evidence presented in court to establish guilt regarding these charges consisted of mainly coerced confessions and a number of recordings and photographs showing some defendants organizing and participating in demonstrations and calling on social media for participation. “Despite the striking lack of evidence of any legitimately criminal activity, the court sentenced 16 defendants to 15-year terms, 4 defendants to 10-year terms, and the remaining 30 defendants to 5 years in prison.”
In the cases of the 21 leading activists and opposition figures, 14 of whom were tried before the “National Safety Courts” in person, the civilian courts upheld their convictions and sentences although they were denied basic due process rights. The High Criminal Court of Appeal upheld the convictions and sentences of 13 of them on 4 September 2012, and on 6 January 2013, the Cassation Court confirmed the verdict. The BICI documented in detail the torture and ill-treatment of many of them, and Amnesty International considered them “prisoners of conscience who should be immediately and unconditionally released.” The Military Prosecution “failed to provide any evidence that the accused used or advocated violence” during the 2011 protests. 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.”
In the case of Mohammad Ramadan and Hussein Ali Moosa, who are at imminent risk of execution, the SIU, despite its inconclusive investigations into their torture complaints, recommended that “the courts reconsider the verdicts against Moosa and Ramadan in light of a newly uncovered medical report by an Interior Ministry doctor that had not been available during the initial trial,” in its 18 March 2018 report. The SIU concluded that there is a “suspicion of the crime of torture (…) which was carried out with the intent of forcing them to confess to committing the crime they were charged with.” Yet, the Court of Cassation upheld their death sentences on 31 July 2020.
In February 2014, a group of 97 lawyers submitted a memorandum to the vice-president of the Supreme Judiciary Council, highlighting the inaction and complicity of the judiciary in preventing and combating torture:
- The PPO and some judges ignore evidence and allegations of torture and admit coerced confessions in criminal proceedings.
- In several cases, the judge refuses the lawyers’ request to include the defendants’ identification of the person who tortured or ill-treated them into the session minutes and refuses to assign the PPO to investigate.
- In many cases, the judge requests that defendants be expelled from the courtroom after identifying the person who tortured or abused them.[i]
The Bahraini judicial system, both the PPO and courts, failed to address the systematic torture of detainees in places of detention and even contributed, directly and indirectly, to widespread impunity.
The judicial system’s reluctance to seriously combat torture could be balanced by effective and independent human rights bodies that are willing and capable of exposing torture cases and pushing for accountability; however, this is not the case in Bahrain. The governmental oversight bodies created in response to the BICI recommendations post-2011 have proved to be defective and deficient.
The Special Investigation Unit (SIU), created in 2012, is responsible for “the determination of criminal accountability of those in government who have committed crimes of killing or torture or mistreatment of civilians, including those in the chain of command under the principle of superior responsibility.” Although creating the SIU within the PPO was a step forward in addressing impunity in Bahrain, the SIU’s independence and effectiveness have been called into question since its inception: it is a part of the PPO hierarchy. Moreover, the rate of case referrals to criminal courts is very low compared to the total complaints received by the SIU during the last decade, most of which ended with acquittals and light sentences, besides most prosecutions have been of low-ranking officers. The SIU association with the PPO adversely affects its integrity and public trust in it with the latter’s disregard of torture allegations and prosecution of prisoners of conscience. It does not also comply with many of the Istanbul Protocol provisions, with which it is supposed to be in line.
The Office of the Ombudsman at the Ministry of the Interior (MOI Ombudsman) is another governmental body that is supposed to help put an end to systematic torture. It became operational in July 2013. The MOI Ombudsman was created to ensure that the Ministry of Interior personnel abide by the legal procedures and hold violators accountable. It is also mandated to receive, review, and examine complaints against members of the Public Security Forces, including torture complaints. The MOI Ombudsman’s independence is also questionable, where it works under the supervision of the MOI, and its employees are appointed upon the approval of the Minister of Interior. As for its effectiveness, the MOI Ombudsman practiced reluctance and disregard for the well-documented violations committed by the MOI personnel, which is demonstrated by the number of cases referred by the MOI Ombudsman for possible criminal prosecution and the fact that a few investigations were launched on its initiative in the last few years.
As for the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), created in 2013, it functions as a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) and is empowered to verify the conditions of inmates and the treatment they receive. The PDRC’s independence and effectiveness have been called into question as well with a lack of transparency in appointing its members, its financial dependency on the MOI Ombudsman, and a lack of clear judgment in its reports. It failed to demonstrate rigor, seriousness, and persistence in addressing pressing issues in detention facilities, especially the torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners.[ii]
Creating these oversight bodies and others seemed promising in combating systematic torture in Bahrain. However, after a decade, their work has not achieved tangible results, raising serious questions about the government’s willingness to genuinely address torture in the country.
Combating and preventing torture requires the concerted efforts of the country’s various stakeholders. “The media and civil society organizations can contribute to an effective system of checks and balances to prevent and prohibit torture.” While the government has almost completely closed the civic space and stifled its institutions, it controlled the media and prevented it from taking its supposed role in exposing torture, supporting victims, and raising awareness about combating it. Responsible media reporting, public education campaigns, and targeted awareness-raising initiatives can build greater knowledge and understanding of the issues, influence public opinion, and help change societal attitudes. However, the existing Bahraini media only disseminate news and information favorable to the government, praise the government’s accomplishments, and adopt the government’s narrative, making them a propaganda tool. Depicting dissidents and opposition figures as “traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “threats to national unity” in Bahraini mainstream media is not helping either. It vilifies the government’s opponents and justifies violence against them.
Overall, Bahrain’s criminal system is lacking independence to eradicate torture, along with a clear political unwillingness to genuinely address this issue. As discussed earlier, the judiciary, in its current state, is unable or unwilling to hold perpetrators to account nor bring justice for hundreds of victims. Civil society is stifled, media are strictly controlled, and oversight bodies are not independent, thus making redress and accountability far-reaching in the current circumstances.
On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, BCHR calls on the Bahrain government to end the “culture of impunity” and bring those involved in torture to justice, including those in the chain of command. Ensuring remedies for torture victims contributes to long-term societal stability and opens the door for overdue political and social reconciliation. Torture victims have the right to redress and accountability, and the Bahraini government has an obligation to protect and fulfill this right under national and international laws.
[i] For more information about torture in Bahrain, read BCHR report “Cosmetic Reforms: Assessing Bahrain’s Implementation of the BICI Recommendations Ten Years Later”, Recommendations 1716, 1719, 1720, 1722 f, available at https://bahrainrights.net/?p=136371
See also BCHR report “Bahrain: Torture is the Policy, Impunity is the Norm”, available at https://bahrainrights.net/?p=13407