ISSN 2330-717X

Bahrain: Vital Reform Commitments Unmet, Says HRW

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Bahrain’s government has not carried out critical recommendations by the independent commission that looked into extensive human rights violations during the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2011, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), established by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and headed by the Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni, issued its findings in November 2011. The king promised at the time to carry out all of its recommendations and established a National Commission to monitor the process. That body reported on March 20, 2012, that the implementation of the BICI’s recommendations had been “comprehensive and far reaching” and “touched all aspects of Bahraini life.” But some of the BICI’s most serious concerns, like accountability for crimes such as torture and relief for people wrongly imprisoned, were not adequately addressed, Human Rights Watch said.

“Bahrain has taken some positive steps, but the Bahraini authorities can hardly claim that the BICI’s recommendations have been implemented as long as hundreds of people remain behind bars solely for speaking out and demanding a change of government,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “And it seems that no high-ranking officials have been investigated for their roles in rampant torture or unlawful killings.”

In one positive step recommended by the BICI, the government stripped the National Security Agency (NSA) of authority to arrest and detain people. The king replaced Shaikh Khalifa bin Abdullah Al Khalifa as head of the agency, but then in a disturbing move promoted him to secretary general of the Supreme Defense Council and a national security adviser to the king with ministerial rank.

The BICI report found that the NSA played a major role in the arrests of 2,929 people during the 10-week state of emergency, from mid-March until early June last year, typically in nighttime raids on homes.Its report said that NSA and other security forces “intentionally broke down doors, forcibly entered and sometimes ransacked the houses,” used “sectarian insults and verbal abuses,” and humiliated relatives and terrified children of those targeted. It said that the pattern of the arrests showed the “existence of an operational plan” that was “designed to inspire terror” among those targeted for arrest.

The BICI concluded that the arrests and detentions carried out during the state of emergency “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure” of the security forces. It also reported that “a large number” of the 179 detainees held by the NSA alleged that they had been subjected to torture.

“The appropriate government response would have been to suspend Al Khalifa pending investigation of his role as head of the NSA during the crackdown,” Stork said. “Rewarding him with a ministerial position illustrates the ruling family’s failure to take seriously the need for accountability at all levels for human rights crimes.”

The BICI called on the government to address allegations of torture by security forces “including those in the chain of command, military and civilian.” The government has initiated prosecutions of several security officers in connection with deaths in custody from torture and possible unlawful killings. But Human Rights Watch knows of no efforts to hold accountable high-ranking officials who presided over what the BICI report termed a “culture of impunity.”

On a related matter, the National Commission’s report said that the government has developed a code of conduct for police in line with international standards, instituted training programs “across the security services to embed respect for human rights and due process,” transferred investigations into torture allegations from the Interior Ministry to the Public Prosecution Office, and set up a “special investigations unit” in the Public Prosecution Office to investigate “unlawful or negligent acts that resulted in deaths, torture and mistreatment of civilians.” This followed on a recommendation by five international lawyers the government had engaged to advise it on implementing the BICI recommendations.

Human Rights Watch questioned whether the decision to place the investigations assignment in the hands of the Public Prosecution Office would in fact meet “the requirements of independence, impartiality and effectiveness” specified by the international advisors unless that office is fundamentally reformed to make it, in practice, independent of the government and committed to comprehensive and impartial accountability. In several reports Human Rights Watch has documented the persistent failure of that office to investigate serious allegations of torture and ill-treatment and to order independent medical examinations of detainees making such allegations. The Public Prosecution Office readily based prosecutions on confessions that were proven to be coerced. The BICI report, for its part, said that it “received evidence indicating that, in some cases, judicial and prosecutorial personnel may have implicitly condoned” the lack of accountability.

Bahrain’s attorney general announced that the investigations unit would be led by “an individual holding the rank of Head Prosecutor” and staffed by “7 prosecutors drawn from the Public Prosecution,” but none of these people have yet been identified by name. In a separate letter to Human Rights Watch, the attorney general wrote that “nothing precludes taking measures against any official proven to have been involved in these events, regardless of his occupation or rank.”

According to the attorney general, in the wake of the BICI report the public prosecutor is investigating complaints against 50 officers for their alleged involvement in 107 cases involving torture and mistreatment of civilians, including several deaths in custody and wrongful killings. A police lieutenant is the highest-ranking official among those being prosecuted, according to news reports, with most of the remainder being non-Bahraini low-ranking Interior Ministry employees.

The authorities’ failure so far to prosecute those responsible for serious human rights violations regardless of rank undermines Bahrain’s commitment to a meaningful reform, Human Rights Watch said.

Other key BICI recommendations not yet implemented are to carry out a comprehensive review of court sentences imposed for speech crimes and to void convictions imposed after grossly unfair trials.

Beginning in early April 2011, special military courts convicted hundreds of people, in most cases on charges that appeared to violate basic rights such as freedom of expression or assembly, for criticizing the king and prime minister, attending “illegal gatherings,” and “inciting hatred against the regime.” The king lifted the state of emergency in early June, but special military courts continued to convict and sentence people until early October.

According to the Supreme Judicial Council, a body chaired by King Hamad, the military courts convicted a total of 502 defendants. Based on a review of available court documents and media reports, Human Rights Watch found that at least 204 defendants were convicted of transparently political charges related to the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly, and that 116 of these were convicted solely on such charges.

Most defendants were held incommunicado for weeks, in some cases months, unable to contact lawyers or family members. In many cases military prosecutors and judges relied on confessions alone to convict people. Many defendants alleged that their confessions had been coerced. The BICI report said that “the lack of accountability of officials within the security system [regarding allegations of torture] has led to a culture of impunity.” The recurrence of torture allegations, the report said, “indicates a systemic problem, which can only be addressed on a systemic level.”

The BICI called for a review of all sentences handed down by the special military courts – whose proceedings violated numerous international fair trial standards – and urged authorities to “commute the sentences of all persons charged with offenses involving political expression, not consisting of advocacy of violence” and drop any pending charges of this sort.

Attorney General Ali bin Fadhl Al Buainain said on December 12 that the government would drop charges relating to “speech protected by the right to freedom of expression” in 43 cases affecting 334 people. In a March 26 response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, Attorney General Buainain said that all 334 people had benefited from this review but that only 19 had been convicted solely for “crimes relating to the practice of freedom of expression” and these 19 had been freed.

Human Rights Watch examined in detail court records relating to the prosecution of 21 leading activists, including Ibrahim Sharif, Abd al-Wahab Hussain, Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, Hassan Mushaima, Abd al-Jalil Singace, and others, who appeared to have been convicted solely for offenses relating to the exercise of freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Their convictions and sentences to long prison terms, in some cases for life, were evidently not among those reviewed.

“Bahrain should not ignore those recommendations that are absolutely central to addressing its ongoing human rights crisis,” Stork said. “Authorities should free without delay all those wrongfully imprisoned, including the leaders of the protests, and ensure that criminal investigations into torture and unlawful killings go as far up the chain of command as necessary.”

Report of the National Commission
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommended establishment of “an independent and impartial national commission consisting of personalities of high standing representing the Government of Bahrain, opposition parties, and civil society to follow up and implement the recommendations of this Commission.”

King Hamad established the National Commission on November 26, 2011, to report on implementation of the BICI recommendations. The National Commission’s 19 appointed members included a government minister who is a member of the ruling family, five members of the Royal Court-appointed Shura Council, a director of a pro-government newspaper, and the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The commission also included five members of the elected Council of Deputies, of whom only one might be considered to represent the opposition.

A representative of the leading opposition party, Al Wifaq, told Human Rights Watch that the government initially set aside 4 of the 19 seats for the opposition, two of them for Al Wifaq. He said the parties declined to join because in their view the opposition and civil society were not adequately represented and the commission had no authority to implement the BICI recommendations, but only to report on steps the government had taken.

On March 20 the commission handed its report to Hamad. The official Bahrain News Agency said that the report addressed security sector reform, judicial reform and due process, social policy, education and media, accountability, and reconciliation.

The government severely restricts Human Rights Watch’s ability to visit Bahrain and monitor developments, so the organization is not in a position to assess all aspects of the commission’s report. But the government has clearly failed to take action in two essential areas: voiding the convictions of people sentenced to long prison terms on political charges and setting them free, and establishing accountability at all levels for serious human rights violations such as torture.

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