Impunity in Bahrain: a call for action to deliver justice for victims of torture

To mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, ECDHR takes a look at Bahrain’s continued culture of impunity for human rights violations, especially in reference to the use of torture by Bahraini officials as a violent and inhumane method to extract confessions and abuse dissidents.

On 13 July 2020, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation reaffirmed the death sentences of Mohamed Ramadhan and Hussain Moosa despite there being credible evidence that the two men were tortured during interrogation. The cases of Ramadhan and Moosa are indeed stark examples of the gross human rights violations perpetrated by Bahraini officials since their torture led to the most severe sentences of a death penalty. However, it must not be forgotten that many political prisoners serving lengthy sentences in Bahrain have also been tortured during detention and interrogation. For instance, the leader of the opposition, Hassan Mushiama, is currently serving a life sentence as a result of his involvement with the pro-democracy 2011 uprising. This sentence was handed down to Mushaima after his arrest and torture at the hands of the National Security Agency (NSA). Indeed, Bahrain’s security and judicial system relies on degrading and dehumanising those who dare to speak out against the government. These cruel tactics are used to extract confessions out of dissidents which are later used to frame and sentence them as threats to national security. The use of torture is even reportedly boasted by officials. In her testimony of events in 2017, Ebtisam al-Saegh recalls a NSA security officer saying “I am called the Torturer, my hobby is torture, my profession is to torture. I have the art of torture” before going on to subject her to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Unfortunately incidences of torture experienced by human rights defenders are not uncommon, despite Bahrain’s national and international legal obligations to human rights mechanisms.

 

Bahrain’s laws and institutions – not implemented, not independent and not effective

According to Bahrain’s own laws, torture is prohibited. Bahrain’s Constitution outlines in Article 19 that the use of torture to extract confessions should be treated as void and Article 20 specifies that “It is forbidden to harm an accused person physically or mentally”. Yet, these laws do little to protect accused detainees and victims of torture from abuse. In response to increasing international pressure, after the world witnessed the violent suppression of the pro-democracy uprising of 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was created. The BICI reports confirmed findings of the use of excessive force from Bahraini government officials which resulted in several casualties among the civilian population, and recommended the establishment of several independent complaints bodies.

Bahrain has created several bodies to investigate allegations of human rights abuses from its official institutions. Among them are the Office of the Ombudsman of the Ministry of the Interior (the Ombudsman), the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), and the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission (PDRC). However, as outlined by the Committee Against Torture (CAT), these bodies are not independent nor are they effective. One example is simply a matter of finances; the Ombudsman’s budget depends on the Ministry of Interior, the very institution they are meant to monitor. Moreover, when the NIHR was first formed in 2009, it received criticism that many members were previously government officials. A quick online search of new NIHR members recently appointed in May 2021 indicates that this trend of cronyism continues, with appointees being made up of a previous and a current member of parliament, at least two also serving on the Shura Council, and others who also serve as board members of various governmental bodies. Therefore there is little done to hold perpetrators of violations to account, resulting in a culture of impunity that continues to pervade the country’s security and judiciary system.

International standards – like talking to a brick wall

The systematic use of torture in Bahrain’s judicial system is not news to the international community and the country’s failure to comply with international standards on human rights has been noted multiple times over the past decade. The PDRC has been criticised for not investigating and documenting issues according to the Istanbul Protocol’s guidance. In fact, concerns were raised by several United Nations Special Rapporteurs over a PDRC report published in late 2015 which failed to mention torture tactics used to stem riots that broke out in Jau Prison earlier that year, effectively denying the abusive practices of prison officials. The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHR) accredits Bahrain with a B-classification as it does not fully conform to the Paris Principles, stating in its 2016 report that the appointment process of NIHR members lacks transparency and that government or parliamentary officials should not be a part of national human rights institutions. The GANHR also raised concerns over the lack of public reports made available which would work to challenge impunity for human rights violations. Submitting reports is a treaty obligation under the 2006 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Bahrain ratified in 2006. 

Bahrain ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1998 and still fails to comply with treaty provisions. The CAT’s 2017 report particularly underlined that effective investigations ensure that those who commit acts of torture are “held personally responsible before the law and will be subject to criminal prosecution and appropriate penalties”, echoing the GANHR concerns over impunity in Bahrain on human rights abuses. Ahead of the then-cancelled CAT’s fourth periodic report on Bahrain, a list of issues prior to submission of the report was published in 2020 highlighting Bahrain’s lack of implementation of key recommendations previously made in 2017. These issues relate to Bahrain’s ongoing use of the death penalty; lack of unannounced visits by independent and international bodies, in particular reference to the notorious Jau Prison; and the lack of visits by United Nations human right mechanisms.

The CAT submission ends with a strong reminder to Bahrain that “the prohibition of torture is absolute and cannot be derogated from, including within the framework of measures related to states of emergency and other exceptional circumstances”. Yet it appears that Bahrain is not listening. In 2021, it was reported that Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) was directly implicated in 570 cases of torture, and at least five of six individuals executed in 2020 were convicted based on coerced confessions obtained under torture. 

Dismantling the wall

There are no doubts that calls from the international community, such as the United Nations Special Rapporteurs recent communications, urging Bahrain to comply with international human rights instruments are important to remind Bahrain that the world is watching. But for too long, perpetrators of torture within Bahrain’s own institutions have continued to get away with their crimes. As highlighted by the CAT and GANHR, it is crucial for Bahrain to end this culture of impunity.

This is why the ECDHR is calling for the European Union to follow through with the momentum gained from its resolution passed in March 2021 to not only condemn the use of torture, but to hold those institutions responsible. We call for the European Union to use the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime on those perpetrators of human rights in Bahrain, in respect for and in solidarity to human rights defenders and victims of torture.

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