Dozens of local and international human rights assessments, including the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), whose conclusions and recommendations were endorsed by the King himself, have confirmed the Bahraini government’s systemic use of torture.
The BICI ascribed systemic torture to “the absence of accountability of personnel inside Bahrain’s security apparatus,” which has resulted in “a culture of impunity.” As widespread impunity is conducive to greater torture and other types of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the Bahraini government’s first goal in fighting torture should have been to punish offenders.
However, the government’s efforts over the past decade have not yielded significant results. The creation of numerous monitoring organisations and the passage of new legislation have not resulted in prosecuting individuals responsible for torture and ill-treatment. Since addressing torture necessitates strict adherence to the notion of “superior responsibility,” the Bahraini government has utterly disregarded this principle. Hundreds of torture victims and their families still await restitution and accountability in Bahrain.
Even before independence, torture has been one of the Bahraini government’s techniques of dominance and control over the populace. During political unrest, reports of torture against political detainees and inmates increased.
Most instances of torture occur during interrogations conducted by law enforcement personnel to elicit confessions or administer punishment. The last rise in cases of torture happened during and after the 2011 Uprising.
Between July 1 2011 and November 23 2011 alone, the BICI received 559 complaints about the maltreatment of detained individuals. Local and international human rights organisations have recorded hundreds of incidences of torture and ill-treatment since then.
The Bahraini criminal justice system supports torture by tolerating legitimate complaints of torture by the Public Prosecution Office (PPO), accepting coerced confessions in court, establishing non-independent and inadequate oversight organisations, and then failing to hold offenders accountable. Even the media contributes to the lack of accountability by serving as the government’s propaganda arm.
The Bahraini legislation grants the PPO authority over offences including torture. However, the PPO has exhibited a lack of independence and reluctance to examine accusations of torture and ill-treatment and hold criminals accountable throughout the years. Hundreds of individuals were tortured and mistreated in detention camps that the PPO was authorised to visit, and hundreds of law enforcement officers who participated in torture remain free and unpunished because to the PPO’s refusal to bring them to justice.
There have been several accounts of the PPO’s flagrant disdain for charges of torture during detainee interrogations. In 2015, Human Rights Watch documented six instances of detainees reporting torture at the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) to the PPO. Not only did the PPO fail to take action, but it also ordered the return of two detainees to the CID for refusing to make confessions. Only one of these incidents has prompted an inquiry. The BICI investigation also revealed that in certain instances, “judicial and prosecutorial staff may have tacitly supported” the lack of accountability in Bahrain’s security system.
According to his relatives, on July 31, 2016, Hassan Jassim Hasan al-Hayky, a 35-year-old Bahraini national, died in captivity from injuries acquired under torture at the CID. Instead of examining Al-claims, Hayky’s the PPO ordered his return to the CID, where he “was exposed to more acts of torture.”
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) obtained information at the time that on July 10 2016, al-Hayky was reportedly subjected to sexual assault by PPO personnel, who compelled him to sign a confession. Despite his repeated demands, he was refused access to a lawyer during the inquiry, and when his attorney arrived, he was mistakenly informed that al-Hayky had not yet been brought in.
When al-attorney Hayky’s indicated that his client had cuts and bruises on his body, proving “beyond a reasonable doubt the presence of a criminal suspicion surrounding the killing,” the PPO charged him of “spreading false information.” The Special Examination Unit (SIU), which operates under the PPO, found after a brief investigation that the cause of death was natural. Mohammad Ramadan was then convicted based on a forced confession and condemned to death on December 29, 2014, despite the fact that he displayed physical evidence of torture to the public prosecutor.
The PPO has been involved in torture through accepting coerced confessions during interrogations, tolerating charges of torture, exercising leniency with torture offenders, and participating in a system that criminalises opposition and justifies the use of violence to suppress it. In the majority of incidents of unlawful death of civilians by security personnel reported by the BICI, some of whom were slain under torture, the PPO prosecuted the culprits with simply assault without intent to kill, resulting in moderate punishments.
In parallel, Bahrain’s courts play a part in the country’s systemic torture and pervasive impunity. Even in high-profile instances, such as the Bahrain 13 case, they have accepted confessions obtained under coercion. Moreover, the court system has failed to give restitution to hundreds of families and victims of human rights abuses by acquitting numerous perpetrators of torture and extrajudicial murders and awarding low terms against the few who were convicted despite the seriousness of their crimes.
Referring to the case of Hani Abd al-Aziz Jumaa, the BICI director stated in 2012, “You cannot argue that justice has been served when asking for Bahrain to become a republic results in a life sentence but the cop who repeatedly shot on an unarmed man at close range receives only seven years.”
In the case of the February 14 Coalition, fifty people were found guilty in a collective trial of forming and joining a “terrorist organisation.” The majority of the evidence given in court to establish guilt for these counts consisted of coerced confessions, as well as a number of recordings and images depicting some defendants organising and engaging in demonstrations and advocating for involvement via social media. “Despite the glaring absence of proof of any truly illegal action, the court sentenced 16 defendants to 15-year jail sentences, 4 defendants to 10-year prison terms, and the other 30 defendants to 5-year prison terms,”
In the trials of 21 prominent activists and opposition individuals, 14 of whom were tried before the “National Safety Courts” in person, the verdicts and punishments were affirmed by the civilian courts despite the denial of fundamental due process rights.
On September 4 2012, the High Criminal Court of Appeal upheld the verdicts and sentences of 13 of them, and on January 6 2013, the Cassation Court affirmed the judgement. Amnesty International regarded them to be “prisoners of conscience who should be released immediately and unconditionally” since the BICI had meticulously recorded their torture and mistreatment.
During the 2011 demonstrations, the Military Prosecution “failed to present any proof that the defendants utilised or supported violence.” The primary damning evidence in the case before the High Criminal Court of Appeal (civil court) consisted of the “confessions of two defendants allegedly obtained through torture and the statements of policemen allegedly participating in the torture of the defendants.”
In the case of Mohammad Ramadan and Hussein Ali Moosa, who face imminent execution, the SIU recommended in its March 18 2018 report that “the courts reconsider the verdicts against Moosa and Ramadan in light of a newly discovered medical report by an Interior Ministry doctor that was not available during the initial trial.”
The SIU determined that there is a “suspicion of the crime of torture (…) which was committed with the goal to coerce them into confessing to the alleged offence.” Yet, on July 31, 2020, the Court of Cassation affirmed their execution sentences.
In February 2014, 97 attorneys filed a memorandum to the vice-president of the Supreme Judiciary Council, underlining the judiciary’s passivity and culpability in preventing and resisting torture:
In criminal prosecutions, the PPO and some judges disregard evidence and claims of torture and accept forced confessions.
In a number of instances, the judge denies the attorneys’ request to include in the session minutes the defendants’ identification of the person who tortured or ill-treated them and refuses to assign the PPO to investigate.
In many instances, the judge orders the defendants to be removed from the courtroom after they identify their tormentor or abuser.
The Bahraini legal system, including the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the courts, failed to confront the systemic torture of detainees in detention facilities and even contributed directly and indirectly to widespread impunity.
This is not the situation in Bahrain, where there are no strong and independent human rights organisations that are willing and able to expose torture incidents and demand accountability. Post-2011, the government monitoring organisations established in response to the BICI’s recommendations have shown to be flawed and inadequate.
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which was established in 2012, is tasked with “determining the criminal liability of government officials who have committed crimes of killing, torture, or mistreatment of civilians, including those in the chain of command under the principle of superior responsibility.”
Although incorporating the SIU within the PPO was a positive step in tackling impunity in Bahrain, the SIU’s independence and efficacy have been questioned since its creation because it is part of the PPO hierarchy. In addition, the rate of cases sent to criminal courts is extremely low relative to the overall number of complaints received by the SIU over the past decade, the majority of which resulted in acquittals and mild punishments, and the majority of prosecutions have involved low-ranking officers. With the PPO’s indifference for torture claims and prosecution of prisoners of conscience, the SIU’s relationship with the PPO undermines its credibility and the public’s faith in it. It also does not comply with a number of the Istanbul Protocol’s stipulations, with which it is intended to conform.
The Office of the Ombudsman of the Ministry of the Interior (MOI Ombudsman) is another government agency tasked with ending systemic torture. It went into service in July 2013. The MOI Ombudsman was established to guarantee that the workers of the Ministry of the Interior adhere to legal processes and hold offenders responsible.
In addition, it is required to receive, assess, and investigate complaints against members of the Public Security Forces, including charges of torture. The independence of the MOI Ombudsman is also problematic, as it is subordinate to the MOI and its staff are selected with the permission of the Minister of the Interior.
Concerning its effectiveness, the MOI Ombudsman demonstrated reluctance and disregard for the well-documented violations committed by MOI personnel, as evidenced by the number of cases referred for possible criminal prosecution by the MOI Ombudsman and the fact that only a few investigations were launched on its initiative in the past few years.
The Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), which was established in 2013, serves as a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) and is authorised to investigate the circumstances and treatment of prisoners. In addition, the independence and efficacy of the PDRC have been questioned because to a lack of openness in the appointment of its members, its financial dependence on the MOI Ombudsman, and a lack of clear judgement in its findings. It failed to exhibit rigour, sincerity, and tenacity in resolving urgent concerns in detention institutions, including torture and ill-treatment of political detainees. [ii]
The formation of these and other oversight organisations appeared promise for combatting widespread torture in Bahrain. However, after a decade, their efforts have shown no real changes, raising major doubts about the government’s commitment to addressing torture in the country in a legitimate manner.
Combating and preventing torture calls for the joint efforts of the nation’s many stakeholders. The media and civil society groups can contribute to a system of checks and balances that effectively prevents and prohibits torture. While the government has almost entirely closed the civic space and strangled its institutions, it has maintained control over the media and prevented it from performing its ostensible functions of exposing torture, aiding victims, and raising awareness about its prevention.
Responsible media reporting, public education campaigns, and focused awareness-raising programmes can increase knowledge and comprehension of the issues, sway public opinion, and contribute to a shift in social views. However, the surviving Bahraini media exclusively distribute news and information favourable to the government, laud its achievements, and accept its narrative, making them a propaganda instrument. The Bahraini mainstream media’s portrayal of dissidents and opposition individuals as “traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “threats to national unity” is also counterproductive. It demonises the opposition and justifies violence against them.
Overall, Bahrain’s criminal justice system lacks the independence to remove torture, and there is a clear political unwillingness to confront this issue in a meaningful manner. As previously mentioned, the existing status of the court renders it incapable or unwilling to hold culprits accountable or provide justice to hundreds of victims. Civil society is suppressed, media are rigorously regulated, and monitoring agencies lack independence, making redress and accountability difficult under the existing conditions.
On International Day in Support of Torture Victims, BCHR urges the Bahraini government to halt the “culture of impunity” and put those responsible for torture, especially those in charge, to justice. Under national and international law, the Bahraini government is required to safeguard and fulfil the right of torture victims to restitution and accountability. Providing reparations for torture victims promotes long-term social stability and paves the way for long-overdue political and social healing.