A Summary of the UN Committee Against Torture’s Review of Bahrain

On 20 March and 24 March 2017, Bahrain was reviewed by the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland. A Bahraini government delegation led by Assistant to the Foreign Minister, Abdulla bin Faisal bin Jabur al-Doseri, updated the UN Committee on Bahrain’s efforts to implement the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which it acceded to in 1998.

The review follows Bahrain’s submission of its second periodic report to the Committee in 2015, 8 years later than its expected submission in 2007.[1] In 2016, Bahrain submitted a second report, responding to specific information requested by the Committee.[2]

During the review, Members of the Committee expressed their concern over allegations that torture is a systematic practice and has created a “culture of impunity” in Bahrain. The Committee also referred several times to Bahrain’s cancellation of the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, recommending that it was “high-time to invite the Special Rapporteur.”

One member, reflecting back on Bahrain’s review in 2005, referred to it as a “more hopeful time”, expressing disappointment at the course of events which have led Bahrain to go in “a different direction”.

While the Committee expressed its appreciation for the Government’s reports and recognized some efforts made by Bahrain to amend its legislation in accordance with the Convention, several concerns were raised by the Committee which are summarized here.

Detailing information provided in a report by ADHRB, the Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD), and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), one member of the Committee raised concerns about the March 2015 incident in Jau Prison and asked the Government to comment on the veracity of the claims.[3] They also asked the Government what steps had been taken to prosecute officials involved in carrying out what seemed to be “collective punishments” against prisoners. The Government denied that collective punishments had been carried out, highlighting the conclusions of investigations by its National Human Rights Institutions.

However, concerns about the independence of Bahrain’s National Human Rights Institutions, in particular the Ministry of Interior (MoI) Ombudsman, were raised repeatedly by the UN Committee. Quoting Bahrain’s MoI Ombudsman, one expert raised serious concern over the ‘dismissal’ of cases showing “no signs of physical torture”, citing that this procedure was in violation of the Istanbul Protocol. Another expert emphasized that the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission could not be considered a National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) for torture, as this would require international access to be granted by Bahrain, to all places of detention, in line with CAT’s Optional Protocol. In fact, several members questioned Bahrain on what efforts it had taken towards the ratification of the Optional Protocol. One member highlighted that the Government’s response to questions on its efforts to ratify the Optional Protocol had been the same as in 2005: it was “considering” this possibility. Members were unsatisfied with the lack of specificity in the response.

Another expert of the Committee raised doubts as to the effectiveness of current training and technical cooperation programs in Bahrain, which did not seem to be translating into “progress in the respect for human rights of those implementing the rule of law”. The Government again denied these claims and said that these allegations made by civil society organizations were ‘groundless’. It emphasized that it had dealt with all torture allegations accordingly, and that its system of investigation was modelled on the United Kingdom, a key partner which was providing technical assistance to Bahrain.

A recurring concern raised by the Committee Against Torture during its review of Bahrain was the issue of impunity. One member expressed concern about the acquittal and subsequent promotion of Mubarak bin Huwail, a Bahraini official allegedly involved in the torture of many individuals. The Committee asked the Government to clarify on this case. The Government delegation provided no reasonable explanation as to why Mr. Huwail had been promoted in spite of the torture allegations. Many members were also concerned with the discrepancies in the statistics provided by the Government regarding the number of officials who had been prosecuted for crimes of torture.

Several members of the Committee asked for information about individual cases which were ramped with allegations of torture and ill-treatment, including Nabeel Rajab, Naji Fateel, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Abdulwahab Hussain, Abduljalil Al-Singace, Ahmed al-Arab, Zeinab Al-Khawaja and Nazeeha Saaed. The Committee further pressed Bahrain on the issue of intimidation and reprisals against civil society. On many occasions throughout the review, Bahrain’s Assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla al-Doseri attempted to undermine the allegations of civil society organizations who submitted alternative reports to the Committee. Al-Doseri specifically attacked organizations based outside of the country, claiming that they did not represent “the opinions of the Bahraini people”.

Another recurring issue raised by the Committee was the implementation, or lack thereof, of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) recommendations. Regarding the recent reinstatement of arrest powers to the National Security Agency (NSA), one member asked for clarification as to why this BICI recommendation, which had been implemented previously by the Government, had been reverted back to a non-implemented status.  The Government responded to this question by emphasizing the steps taken to train and restructure the NSA. The Government gave no response, however, to another question raised by one expert, asking what steps had been taken to prosecute officials from this agency – who had been implicated in torture cases – as documented in the BICI report. Another Committee member expressed concern over the Government’s apparent effort to misquote a member of the BICI, Cherif Bassiouni, regarding Bahrain’s progress on the recommendations.

Overall, the review cast several doubts over Bahrain’s implementation of the CAT. Members of the Committee seemed to suggest that there were serious gaps between Bahrain’s legislation, which provided considerable legal safeguards against torture, and its implementation in practice. Next month, the Committee will publish its recommendations to Bahrain, highlighting the several areas which it deems require reforms.

[1] Bahrain’s 2015 report can be accessed here.

[2] Bahrain’s 2016 report can be accessed here.

[3] ADHRB, BIRD and BCHR’s Jau Prison report can be accessed here.