Bahrain’s police are beating and torturing detainees, including minors, despite public commitments to end torture and police impunity, Human Rights Watch said today following a five day visit to the country.
While in Bahrain, from April 15 to 19, 2012, Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 young males, including 7 children, who said police had beaten them severely while arresting them for participating in public protests and while taking them to a police station. The beatings took place after the release of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in November 2011 and subsequent pledges by government officials, including King Hamad, to end ill-treatment and torture. Five of the incidents occurred in April.
While treatment inside police stations and formal detention facilities appears to have significantly improved since the release of the BICI report, Human Rights Watch found that police still regularly resorted to beating protesters, in some cases severely, at the time of arrest and during their transfer to police stations.
“Bahrain has displaced the problem of torture and police brutality from inside police stations to the point of arrest and transfer to police stations,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, who was on the five-day visit. “This abuse contradicts one of the most important recommendations of the independent commission and shows why investigations and prosecutions of abusers to the highest level are essential to stopping these practices.”
Human Rights Watch heard numerous consistent accounts from victims that the police were taking detained protesters to informal detention facilities or isolated outdoor areas for between 30 minutes and two hours and beating them before transferring them to police stations. Human Rights Watch collected detailed information about two such informal facilities: a youth hostel in Sanabis and an equestrian school for police members, locally referred to as Khayyala, near the police station in Budaiya.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed two 16-year-olds who said riot police had picked them up off the streets in al-Deir, a village northeast of Manama on April 17, and took them to an empty lot near the village. There, they said, police beat them severely and threatened one with rape if they did not give information about where the village youths were allegedly hiding Molotov cocktails. The police left them in the empty lot after it became clear that the youths had no such information. Injury marks consistent with their account of beatings on their backs, arms, and faces were still clearly visible when Human Rights Watch interviewed them on April 18.
While many anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain have remained peaceful, some protesters have used rocks and Molotov cocktails to confront police. Police officials and officers, many of whom are recruited from countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria, told Human Rights Watch that they feel besieged in the predominantly Shi`a neighborhoods where most protests take place. At the same time, during Human Rights Watch’s time in Bahrain, activists and political analysts repeatedly suggested that the use of excessive force by police is not deterring protests, but rather leading to greater anger and eagerness to confront them.
“Violence by some protesters is wrong, but in no way justifies brutal police beatings of those detained by police,” Houry said. “This unlawful police behavior may well make the young protesters even more desperate and determined to confront the government.”
Human Rights Watch has previously documented frequent use of torture by Bahraini authorities, usually in the context of interrogations and for the apparent purpose of securing confessions. The BICI also documented routine torture and said that the failure of authorities to investigate and punish those responsible had led to a “climate of impunity” in the country.
Human Rights Watch raised the issue of police brutality and torture during arrest and at informal facilities with Bahrain’s chief of public security, Major General Tariq al-Hasan, and his two senior international advisers, John Yates and John Timoney, on April 17. Timoney and Yates said they had visited some of the facilities identified by Human Rights Watch but found no evidence at the time of their visits of detainees being taken there and mistreated. Major General al-Hasan told Human Rights Watch that the police authorities were considering issuing instructions to order immediate transfer of detained protesters to police stations.
Major General al-Hasan also stressed that the government’s priority was improved police training as a long-term solution to the problem of abuse. But the country has apparently made rapid progress in eliminating torture inside police stations, where video cameras are being installed at the recommendation of the BICI. And police have shown relative restraint when confronting protests in the presence of international media and human rights observers.
These changes demonstrate that the police can behave professionally when they are being watched, indicating that additional training is not the key factor, Human Rights Watch said. Bahrain’s leaders need to make clear that they will investigate and punish those responsible for abuses when the cameras are off.
Victims who reported being beaten by the police consistently told Human Rights Watch that because they did not trust the police or the public prosecutor, they had not filed complaints against police officers who beat them. Three protesters who were severely beaten by police on December 16 after they sought shelter on a rooftop in the village of Shakhura told Human Rights Watch that they feared being arrested for holding an “illegal gathering” if they filed a complaint. The beating incident was captured on camera and widely disseminated on YouTube.
Human Rights Watch raised the case of the December 16 Shakhura beating with Interior Ministry officials as well as members of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The officials were aware of the case and of the video but said that a criminal investigation was hindered by the fact that no protester had filed a complaint. They added that some police officers had been suspended for their conduct, but acknowledged that they have not publicly announced who was suspended or why.
“Bahrain’s public prosecutor as well as the commanders of security forces need to prove they are willing to hold officers at all levels accountable for beating and humiliating protesters,” Houry said.
Clashes between police and protesters occur almost every night. During Human Rights Watch’s brief visit, protesters demanded the release of political prisoners, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who are serving lengthy prison sentences after leading last year’s massive peaceful street protests demanding serious political reforms. Tensions have also risen because of stalled implementation of key BICI recommendations.
Police often use force to disperse non-violent protests, on the grounds that they are unauthorized. In one case observed by Human Rights Watch, in the village of Diraz on the night of April 15, riot police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse and then detain participants in a march who were chanting anti-government slogans and trying to reach a main road, but who had not acted violently. An officer at the scene told Human Rights Watch that police used force preemptively, saying, “if we didn’t attack the protesters, they would have attacked us.”
Later that evening, Human Rights Watch also observed police using tear gas to disperse a group of mothers who had come to the nearby police station in Budaiya to protest the detention of their sons following the Diraz protest.
“Instead of using force reflexively, Bahraini police should work with community leaders to establish ground rules that would allow opposition supporters to protest peacefully and visibly, even if protests are technically unauthorized, so long as they are non-violent,” Houry said.