Bahrain’s “Butcher” of Human Rights Sits on Saudi Yemen Accountability Panel

Saudi Arabia has appointed Bahraini judge Mansour al-Mansour to advise the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT). The JIAT is the coalition’s investigatory and accountability body tasked with reviewing alleged human rights abuses, including attacks on civilians. Mansour al-Mansour, now poised to issue verdicts on alleged human rights violations in Yemen, previously tried and jailed dozens of peaceful activists in 2011, despite their credible allegations of torture to extract coerced confessions. His appointment as an adviser to the body thus demonstrates the JIAT’s inability to operate with independence, impartiality, integrity, and in accordance with international humanitarian law (IHL).

In February 2011, thousands of Bahrainis peacefully demonstrated around the country, protesting against the government’s continued denial of basic political freedoms and human rights. In response, the Bahraini government responded violently and declared martial law. It deployed the army and National Guard and requested assistance from regional Gulf monarchy military forces. The Bahraini forces used tear gas and live fire to disperse the demonstrators, killing several. After suppressing the marches, the government embarked on an intensified campaign of repression, arbitrarily arresting, detaining, and torturing hundreds of activists, dissidents, and other individuals participating in calls for reform.

As a judge, Mansour al-Mansour headed the First Instance Court of National Safety, a military tribunal set up during the martial law to process the trial and prosecution of hundreds of peaceful protesters and political and human rights activists. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, al-Mansour was responsible for convicting 300 defendants during the period of martial law. Since then, many have named al-Mansour the “butcher” of human rights activists and defenders. Among those he sentenced were human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Tajer, doctors from Salmaniya Hospital, the Bahrain 13, human rights defenders, religious clerics, and teacher and head of the Bahrain Teachers Association Mahdi Abu Dheeb. He handed down more than five execution judgments and sentenced many more to life in prison, including Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

During their trials, many of the defendants told al-Mansour that they had been tortured while in detention. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), in collaboration with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has compiled extensive documentation concerning widespread torture in Bahraini prisons and detention centers. Despite the defendant’s credible allegations, al-Mansour disregarded their statements. Instead, sources tell ADHRB that “[any defendant who] said ‘I am tortured,’ [al-Mansour] would tell the police officers to shut him up.” Additionally, he ignored evidence and issued sentences based on false allegations of illegal gatherings and fake reports of people kidnapping police officers.

According to confidential sources, al-Mansour’s aim was to receive the case file from a defendant’s first hearing, ask them if the defendatns was guilty or not, and, regardless of the defendants’ answer, book the case to final judgment. In this way, al-Mansour sent Mohamed al-Tajer’s case to final judgment after only two hearings, even though al-Mansour received instructions to stop the trial and refer al-Tajer to the Civil Court at the Ministry of Justice.

After his work during the martial law in 2011, al-Mansour has specialized in humanitarian law. To this end, he attended training sessions held by Bahrain’s Red Crescent Society and the International Committee for the Red Cross. He also advised Bahrain’s consultative Shura council on whether to adopt the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a watered-down version of the international treaty on cluster bombs—which Bahrain refuses to sign. Al-Mansour reassured Bahraini legislators that the convention would not apply to the use of weapons within the kingdom. The government subsequently acceded to the convention.

Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners formed the JIAT in January 2016 to investigate claims that the coalition committed human rights violations while fighting in the conflict in Yemen. According to Saudi state media, the JIAT is an independent body composed of 14 military and legal experts from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. The JIAT’s legal advisor is Mansour al-Mansour. JIAT members are all citizens and employees of the states that are engaged in the coalition’s bombing campaign, thus creating a conflict of interest. The JIAT cannot be impartial on questions of human rights abuses when officials of these state are assessing the abuses.

On 5 August 2016, the JIAT released its findings in eight cases of alleged human rights abuses. It cleared the coalition of unlawful activity in six cases, which included the bombing of a residential complex, markets, and three hospitals and clinics. While it acknowledged shortcomings in two cases, the JIAT also disputed the reported casualty figures and stated that there was “no breach of protocol or the rules of the international humanitarian law” by coalition forces in any of the incidents.

Despite the JIAT’s assertions absolving the coalition of any wrongdoing, human rights organizations have strongly criticized its work. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented more than 70 unlawful coalition airstrikes that have killed at least 913 civilians and deliberately targeted noncombatants. Despite this, the JIAT has investigated fewer than a dozen of these incidents, and absolved the coalition of wrongdoing in most of the cases.

In addition, the JIAT claims that the coalition’s bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-supported hospitals was justified due to Houthi presence in and around the facilities, while also stating that MSF had not done enough to share its facilities’ coordinates with the coalition. However, MSF, which has been forced to pull its personnel out of northern Yemeni hospitals, refuted the claims, stating, “MSF has systematically shared the GPS coordinates of hospitals in which we work with the parties involved in the conflict. Coalition officials repeatedly state that they honor international humanitarian law, yet this attack shows a failure to control the use of force and to avoid attacks on hospitals full of patients.”

The JIAT is an attempt by the Government of Saudi Arabia to deflect attention away from its role in the deaths of hundreds of Yemeni civilians and attacks on civilian infrastructure. However, the JIAT has repeatedly demonstrated its lack of independence and impartiality. It is meant to be a body to assess the coalition’s accountability and compliance with international humanitarian law, yet its members work for the same governments that are prosecuting the war. Its legal adviser, Mansour al-Mansour, is implicated in serious and comprehensive allegations of judicial irresponsibility and human rights abuses for his role in Bahrain’s violent repression of peaceful demonstrators in 2011. The JIAT is a body meant to “assess” human rights abuses, yet it is advised by a human rights abuser. As such, the JIAT is unable to meet the standards of independent and impartial accountability.

Tyler Pry is the Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB