Dispatch: Fact vs. Myth – Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)

The Government of Bahrain established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in July 2011, following the repression of the pro-democracy movement in February of that year. The BICI commission consisted of a panel of international human rights experts who set out to analyze Bahraini authorities’ violations during the pro-democracy movement. The BICI commission then set out to put forth recommendations to the government on how to prevent such events from happening in the future. In November 2011, the BICI commission handed over their finalized report to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The report outlined 26 recommendations for the Government of Bahrain. The recommendations aimed to bring about meaningful reform to end the kingdom’s ongoing systematic abuses.

The 26 BICI recommendations addressed a number of systematic government abuses. Several recommendations address the lack of accountability of government authorities accused of ill-treatment and torture. The BICI commission put forth suggestions to address Bahraini courts’ dismissal of judicial due process procedures and arbitrary detention of peaceful political activists. The commission sought to address the sectarianized public security force that lacked training in “the human rights dimensions of detention and interrogation.” Some recommendations also seek to reinstate Bahraini workers and students after their dismissal from businesses and schools for their participation in the pro-democracy protests.

The BICI commission presented the Government of Bahrain with their findings in November 2011. King Hamad publicly accepted the BICI and called for the full implementation of all 26 recommendations to address ongoing human rights violations. In March 2012, just four months after the presentation of the BICI to King Hamad, the Government of Bahrain declared that “most” of the recommendations had been implemented with the rest soon to follow. In September 2015, the Government of Bahrain stated that 19 of the 26 recommendations had been fully implemented.

A Bahraini government announcement of the full implementation of all 26 BICI recommendations came in May 2016. In commemoration of the government’s claim of success, King Hamad presented the chairperson of the BICI commission, Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, with the Bahrain Medal of the First Class. State media quoted Professor Bassiouni commending the Government of Bahrain for implementing all of the BICI recommendations. Professor Bassiouni has since stated he was wrongfully cited and claims the Bahraini government has only implemented ten of the 26 recommendations.

In 2013, the US State Department released a report analyzing the Bahraini government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations. The State Department report found that the Government of Bahrain had fully implemented five of the 26 BICI recommendations. The State Department noted that “much work remains” in order for Bahrain to uphold its promise of fulfilling all BICI recommendations. In February 2016, the State Department was due to release another analysis of the implementation of BICI recommendations in a Congressionally-mandated report. Almost five months past the due date, the State Department released their second BICI analysis at the end of June 2016.

This second State Department report came amid a number of unprecedented acts of repression by the Government of Bahrain against civil society. In the three weeks leading up to the release of the State Department report, the Bahraini government exiled political activist Zainab al-Khawaja, implemented travel bans against members of a delegation of human rights advocates attempting to participate in the 32nd Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), arrested prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, shut down Bahrain’s largest opposition political party Al-Wefaq, and revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim. The State Department included none of these acts of repression in their overdue report. The report also did not include assessments of implementation status for each BICI recommendation.

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), and the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD) find that the Government of Bahrain has fully implemented two of the 26 BICI recommendations. Recommendation 1718, which urges for the National Security Agency (NSA) to give up law enforcement and arrest powers, and recommendation 1722(i), which calls on courts to commute the death sentences of those defendants charged for murder during February and March 2011, were fully implemented.

An overwhelming number of BICI recommendations have yet to be implemented. Recommendation 1722(b) – to establish an independent oversight body to investigate allegations of torture – is often considered implemented and cited as an indication of progress made by the Bahraini government. The Government of Bahrain has established an Ombudsman’s office and a National Institute of Human Rights. Neither of these institutions are independent nor impartial. Staff within these oversight bodies are often former government employees. These bodies are subordinate to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which has a history of ignoring allegations or enacting reprisals against victims who complain of torture.

BICI recommendation 1722(h) calls on the Government of Bahrain to drop charges and commute sentences of all persons convicted of crimes related to peaceful dissent. Bahraini authorities continue to arbitrarily detain individuals for exercising their internationally-sanctioned right to free speech. Nabeel Rajab currently remains in government detention on charges related to his posts on social media; he could face up to 13 years in prison. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Zainab al-Khawaja, and Maryam al-Khawaja have all been sentenced on speech-related charges. Abdulhadi remains at Jau Prison on a life sentence and the Bahraini government has effectively exiled Maryam and Zainab. Bahraini courts have sentenced two prominent political leaders, Sheikh Ali Salman and Ebrahim Sharif, to prison for peaceful speeches that they gave criticizing Bahraini government abuses. Sharif has since been released after serving his one-year sentence but now remains at risk of re-arrest.

By November 2016, the Government of Bahrain will have had five years to implement the 26 recommendations outlined in the BICI. Their progress in implementing the BICI recommendations remains insufficient. ADHRB has gone through the 24 BICI recommendations the Bahraini government has yet to fully implement and outlined the lack of progress for each one. We call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately take action to uphold its promise to implement all 26 BICI recommendations. Bahraini authorities must follow through with human rights reforms and allow peaceful dissent in order to ensure a healthy and free civil society.