US officials should seek assurances from NSA Ombudsman following reinstatement of arrest powers

In February 2017, members of the US Embassy met with the National Security Agency (NSA) Ombudsman’s Office. This is the first publicized meeting between US officials and the NSA Ombudsman since Bahraini authorities restored arresting powers to the NSA. A brief readout of the meeting stated that NSA Ombudsman received two political officers from the US Embassy in Manama and met with them “in the presence of the director of complaints department.”

On 5 January 2017, the Bahraini government issued Royal Decree 1/2017, the first of the year, which states: “Officers and members of the NSA have the power to order detention in terrorism crimes.” Royal Decree 1/2017 reverses Royal Decree 115/2011, which stripped the NSA of its law enforcement powers. In 2011, following the pro-democracy uprising, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found that the NSA carried out wide-ranging and systematic human rights violations, including mass arrests, home raids, enforced disappearance, torture, and death.

The BICI issued 26 recommendations to the Bahraini government, one of which is Recommendation 1718: “To amend the decree establishing the NSA to ensure that the organization is an intelligence gathering agency without law enforcement and arrest authorities.” Prior to January 2017, ADHRB found that Recommendation 1718 was one of only two recommendations that the Government of Bahrain had fully implemented.

During the 2011 uprising in Bahrain, the NSA arrested a total of 179 individuals, including Al Wasat newspaper founder Karim Fakhrawi. Authorities arrested Fakhrawi on 2 April 2011, and the NSA took him into custody. On 11 April 2011, Fakhrawi was pronounced dead after he suffered from injuries sustained while in the custody of the NSA. Authorities alerted the family the following day, and they went to pick up Fakhrawi’s body, which shoed clear signs of extensive torture. According to the BICI report, “The family was threatened that if they took photographs of the body they would ‘end up like him.’”

More recently on 26 January 2017, after the announcement of Royal Decree 1/2017, men in black balaclava masks attacked a sit-in protest in Diraz, firing live ammunition into the crowd of protesters. The attack lead to the death of Mustafa Hamdan, who was shot in the head. The identity of the men has not yet been verified. However, the accounts of the NSA as reported by the US State Department and the BICI in 2011 are consistent with information from witnesses the night of the January attack. No branch of the security forces has accepted responsibility.

With the Bahraini government’s decision to restore arrest powers to the NSA, the NSA Office of the Ombudsman now carries a greater responsibility to act independently and impartially in order to address any possible violations carried out by NSA authorities. At the February 2017 meeting with the NSA Ombudsman, US Embassy Officials had the opportunity to raise concerns about the reinstatement of arrest powers to the NSA. Additionally, US Embassy Officials should seek assurances from the Ombudsman that it will take all measures to ensure the prevention of the “physical and psychological mistreatment by the [NSA]” that the US State Department found in its 2011 Bahrain Human Rights Report.