On 12 September 2017, the Ombudsman for Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) released its fourth annual report for the period of 1 May 2016 to 30 April 2017. As in its previous report, the Ombudsman’s Office re-emphasizes its autonomy from the government and greater security establishment, presenting statistics concerning the complaints of MOI malfeasance that it received during the period under review. Nevertheless – and, again, as in its previous report – the Ombudsman fails to address extensive, credible evidence of systematic arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment committed by MOI personnel within the last year, and it does not provide thorough, transparent information about the resolution of complaints. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) remains gravely concerned that the deep flaws in the Ombudsman’s mandate, structure, and procedures continue to compromise its ability to monitor human rights abuses and hold violators accountable.
The 2016/2017 annual report indicates that the Ombudsman received 1,156 complaints over the last year, representing 35 percent of the total number of complaints and assistance requests submitted to the institution since its establishment in 2013. According to the report, 66 percent of the 1,156 complaints were submitted by men, 30 percent by women, and four percent by “local and international organizations.” Nineteen percent of the individual complainants submitted at least two complaints, suggesting need for repeated redress and/or follow-up.
Notably, while the Ombudsman’s report entirely fails to breakdown the complaints by type of abuse or to analyze the figures it does provide, its chronological and location-based data do roughly conform to ADHRB’s reporting during the period under review. For example, the preponderance of complaints received by the Ombudsman were submitted against, in descending order: 1) Jau Prison, the kingdom’s primary long-stay male detention center; 2) the General Directorate of Investigation and Criminal Evidence (also known as the Criminal Investigations Directorate, or CID); and 3) the standard police forces of the four governorates, Capital, Muharraq, Southern, and Northern. ADHRB’s documentation also identifies these institutions and their personnel as the primary sites and perpetrators of abuse, with Jau Prison and CID implicated in hundreds of cases of torture in recent years. Additionally, the governorate police, in conjunction with notorious non-MOI security institutions like the National Security Agency (NSA), are regularly implicated in arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.
Likewise, the Ombudsman indicates that the month in which it received the highest number of complaints is March 2017, when the Bahraini government launched a concerted reprisals campaign against human rights defenders and civil society activists around the 34th Session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC). Among those targeted were the family members of Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, an exiled activist and Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), and Ebtisam al-Saegh, a human rights defender who has since been detained and tortured herself. Similarly, the Ombudsman recorded its second-highest number of complaints in June 2016, when the authorities re-arrested leading human rights defender and President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab; forcibly exiled activist Zainab al-Khawaja; began legal proceedings that ultimately dissolved Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the kingdom’s largest political opposition group; and arbitrarily stripped Bahrain’s most prominent Shia religious leader, Sheikh Isa Qasim, of his citizenship, prompting mass peaceful demonstrations. That month is largely seen as the beginning of a renewed crackdown on basic human rights of a severity not seen since before the 2011 pro-democracy, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights saying on 11 September 2017 that “since June 2016, the Government of Bahrain has imposed severe restrictions on civil society and political activism through arrests, intimidation, travel bans and closure orders, with increasing reports of torture by the security authorities.”
However, the Ombudsman’s most recent report declines to acknowledge or provide documentation to address the evidence raised by the High Commissioner. Instead, it simply indicates that it referred 83 – just seven percent – of the 1,156 complaints to a disciplinary or prosecutorial authority. More still, the majority of these cases were referred to the Security Prosecution, a separate judicial body for Bahrain’s security personnel which, in 2012, was purportedly restricted from prosecuting cases of “torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or deaths linked thereto” over ostensive concerns of partiality and opacity. As a result, only the 16 complaints referred to the Public Prosecution and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) should be understood as concerning serious offenses or constituting a formal attempt to secure accountability for MOI personnel. Those cases represent just one percent of the total complaints received by the Ombudsman during the year.
Additionally troubling is the report’s omission of credible allegations of government responsibility for a death in custody during the period under review. Of the eight deaths that the Ombudsman acknowledged for the year, it dismissed four as the result of natural causes and reported that another four remained under investigation, though not for torture or ill-treatment. Moreover, one of the four cases it dismissed – which it anonymously labels as “Death in Detention Investigation 2 – Mr. B” – corresponds to that of Hasan al-Hayki, a 35-year-old inmate in the Dry Dock Detention Center who died in July 2016 after credible allegations of torture and medical deprivation. ADHRB, BCHR, and BIRD called for an independent investigation into al-Hayki’s death and, although both the Ombudsman and the SIU reportedly examined the case, they ultimately failed to satisfactorily address the allegations. Just nine days after the SIU began its investigation, it declared there was no suspicion of wrongdoing. Moreover, four days later the authorities charged al-Hayki’s lawyer with “publicly spreading false information with the intention of influencing the judicial authority in charge of the case” after he allegedly disagreed with the SIU’s findings, telling “a local newspaper that there were injuries and bruises on the body of the deceased that proved beyond any doubt a criminal suspicion.” In its new annual report, the Ombudsman went further than the SIU, stating that “the examination of evidence raised no issues of concern.” The Ombudsman’s report also appears to reference the case of Mohammad Sahwan, the first political prisoner to die in Jau Prison since 2011, though it omits the fact that he had been previously subjected to excessive force, torture, arbitrary detention, and medical deprivation. Sahwan reportedly died of cardiac arrest, though – notably – the Ombudsman’s investigation remains open.
The report contains no dedicated section providing clear recommendations to the MOI or to other government bodies, but it seems to make two related recommendations to prison authorities concerning: 1) the availability of emergency medical care; and 2) precautions to take against inmate drug smuggling and abuse. The foreword issued by the head of the Ombudsman’s Office, Nawaf Mohamed Al Moawdah, also appeared to include an additional recommendation concerning the implementation of a separate recommendation issued by the Prisoner and Detainee Rights Commission (PDRC) – an equally flawed oversight body that is chaired by the Ombudsman. In the latter case, however, the Ombusman acknowledges that “the pathway of every detainees from the time of arrest” is not in fact “fully covered by CCTV” cameras, as recommended by the PDRC as well as the international community. This admission directly contradicts the government’s assertion in its national report to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in June 2016, which claimed the MOI instituted this measure and “installed the most technologically up-to-date cameras.” To the contrary, the Ombudsman’s current report appropriately calls on the “roll out” of the recommendation to be “given the highest priority,” suggesting the process is far from complete.
Ultimately, the Ombudsman’s 2016/2017 annual report simultaneously confirms both the continued need for strong oversight and accountability mechanisms in Bahrain, and its consistent failure to properly fulfil that mandate itself. Only one percent of the complaints it received were referred to bodies charged with holding security personnel accountable for serious human rights violations like torture, and even these bodies are extremely flawed, prone to bias, and implicated in due process abuses. The Ombudsman’s inability to independently and transparently address the increasing rate of severe abuses in Bahrain puts complainants at further risk of reprisal and undermines the potential for real reform and reconciliation in the kingdom. At worst, the Ombudsman – which remains deeply supported by the United Kingdom, as evidenced by Amnesty International and the new annual report itself – continues to obscure the full breadth and severity of crimes committed by the kingdom’s authorities, even when it inadvertently disproves their misleading claims in other fora. ADHRB calls on the Government of Bahrain to restructure the Ombudsman in such a way as to truly separate it from executive influence and empower it to hold perpetrators responsible for their abuses.