A history of impunity
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) offered hope for the Kingdom to peacefully reform the country. These hopes were short-lived as Bahrain continues to maintain a system where every institution is controlled by the Sunni royal family, preventing any sanctions from being taken against human rights violators and abusers.
As noted in an unpublicized US State Department assessment in 2013, other than the failed prosecution of Lt. Col. Mubarak Abdullah Bin Huwayl al-Marri and Lt. Shaika Nura Bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the ruling family, “[t]here is no indication [that] any officials is being held responsible or prosecuted for overseeing or committing acts leading to abuse, mistreatment, torture, or death.”
While authorities have been vigorously prosecuting individuals solely for exercising the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly; the few prosecutions of security personnel implicated in the serious and widespread abuses documented by BICI have focused almost exclusively on low-ranking officers. However, even those have resulted in acquittals or disproportionately light sentences. In fact, high ranking individuals, such as Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, are still rewarded for committing human rights abuses rather than being justifiably punished and held to account for their actions.
Since 2011, the Bahraini government has consistently ensured that any kind of accountability for human rights abuses committed by authorities and high-ranking officials is virtually non-existent. This has helped entrench the country’s culture of impunity within the security forces. BICI recommendations continue to be largely ignored and human rights watchdogs in the country have essentially been a facade upheld to deceive the international community into believing that the country is taking genuine steps to reform.
More recently, Bahrain’s Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers who led the Bahraini government for five decades, passed away in November 2020. While this could have been a further opening for the Bahraini government to demonstrate its commitment to democracy by calling for a fair election, the newly appointed Prime Minister is Bahrain’s crown prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. Though the shift in leadership might have offered some hope for political change, the crown prince has been in power for years and is expected to maintain, as he has been thus far, the status quo.
NIHR and the Ombudsman’s lack of accountability
Bahrain has established a number of mechanisms that are supposed to address human rights concerns, including in prisons. The more significant of these is the Ombudsman for the Ministry of Interior and the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR).
Despite the NIHR’s reorganization, the institution continues to lack the necessary will or independence to objectively and comprehensively assess the state of human rights in Bahrain. The NIHR remains closely connected to the government and it has failed to fully comply with the international standards governing national human rights institutions, known as the Paris Principles.
Prisoners and their families had filed complaints with the Ombudsman with no result. In the very few cases where the Ombudsman has acted, by interviewing prison authorities and/or prisoners, its follow-up has been ineffective. The family of Mohamed Ali Jaafar, for instance, has received no news of any prison visit or other action by the Ombudsman to ensure the most basic rights of delivery for his medication required to treat his multiple sclerosis. The Ombudsman’s procedures generally lack transparency. The office typically does not provide any form of a paper trail to members of the Bahraini public, and when families of detainees attempt to seek help, they are not given any formal record of filing a grievance other than, sometimes, a file number.
The culture of impunity thrives at large under the kingdom’s facade. At a press conference, the chairman of the NIHR said there is “no systematic maltreatment of any kind in Bahrain’s prisons”. Saeed al-Faihani added that a string of unannounced visits to prisons in the country had found no evidence of torture. These claims were repeated by Simon Martin, the UK ambassador to Bahrain, who met with the NIHR to discuss rights reform, where he reportedly expressed “his appreciation” for the organisation and praised “positive steps” made in its monitoring of human rights.
Even if the Bahraini government agreed to adopt the measures from BICI to address serious human rights violations and to hold accountable those suspected to be responsible, they have not been implemented. Nevertheless, the Bahraini government continues to claim that the human rights oversight bodies it created, the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigations Unit, have served this purpose.
A lot of work must be done to break the country’s longstanding culture of impunity. The Ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit must urgently address their failings if they are not to lose credibility. Unless the government holds human rights abusers–including the royal family and senior officials, accountable for their actions–Bahrain will only move further away from becoming a stable and inclusive society.