On 29 January 2018, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation confirmed the conviction of death row detainee Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz. Because the Court of Cassation is the country’s highest court, he can no longer appeal his death sentence, and his execution is now at the discretion of the king. The court’s decision comes in spite of credible evidence that al-Khabbaz was tortured, as well as United Nations Special Procedures engagement with the Government of Bahrain that articulated serious concern with regards to due process violations and the validity of the original trial. His sentence could be carried out at any time.
Bahraini authorities arrested Al-Khabbaz despite his alibi and without a warrant for allegedly killing a police officer with a flare gun in 2013. They proceeded to hold him in incommunicado detention and refused to inform him of the charges for weeks. Al-Khabbaz was denied access to legal counsel during his detention, and he was physically and emotionally abused into signing a coerced confession. Authorities subjected him to repeated beating and whipping, electrocution, forced standing, and deprivation of prayer, food, and use of the toilet. Al-Khabbaz was then taken to the Public Prosecution Office, where a prosecutor threatened to have his torture resumed if he did not again confess to killing the police officer.
At the initial trial, officials prevented al-Khabbaz and his lawyer from calling any witnesses and, at certain times, even from being present in the courtroom. As verified by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), the authorities relied on the coerced confession and “undisclosed sources” throughout the trial, failing to present physical evidence connecting al-Khabbaz to the attack. Nevertheless, on 19 February 2014, the court convicted al-Khabbaz and sentenced him to death. After a 2014 appeal and a subsequent retrial that concluded in 2017 – both of which upheld the original decision – the Court of Cassation ultimately confirmed his death sentence on 29 January 2018.
The Bahraini government regularly commits due process violations in capital cases. Nearly all of the abuses perpetrated against al-Khabbaz are mirrored in the cases of Mohammed Ramadan and Husain Ali Moosa in late 2014, as well as those of Sami Mushaima, Ali al-Singace, and Abbas al-Samea, who were first convicted in 2015. Bahraini authorities executed Mushaima, al-Singace, and al-Samea by firing squad in January 2017, ending a seven-year de facto moratorium on capital punishment in the kingdom. They were sentenced to death based on false confessions extracted through torture. Like Al-Khabbaz, Ramadan and Moosa are at imminent risk of execution after being convicted through an unfair trial that also relied on torture and coerced testimony; their sentences were confirmed in 2015.
The Government of Bahrain must abide by the international standards of due process to ensure fair trial rights, especially in capital cases. Ultimately, it should institute a formal moratorium on capital punishment with a view toward abolition. In the meantime, the government must immediately commute all death sentences and move to release all detainees convicted through confessions extracted through torture, like Maher al-Khabbaz.
Giacomo Mattei is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.