Bahrain Begins First Military Trial of Civilians since 2011, Victims of Incommunicado Detention Unfairly Prosecuted

24 October 2017 – Four defendants facing political charges yesterday appeared before the military court, in the first trial of civilians by the Bahraini military since 2011. Defendant Sayed Alawi Sayed Husain was subjected to enforced disappearance at the time of his arrest in October 2016 and and held incommunicado since; none of the defendants have been allowed to meet their lawyers and been denied regular contact with their families. We, the undersigned, condemn the Government of Bahrain’s violation of the defendants’ right to fair trial and the arbitrary denial of their liberty.

The Head of the Military Judiciary, Brigadier Yusuf Rashid Flaifel, yesterday announced that members of an alleged terror cell which had “committed several crimes against the [Bahrain Defence Force]” have been referred to the High Military Court, following the completion of the Military Prosecution’s investigations. The defendants were presented before the Military Court yesterday, which set the date for the first substantive hearing to Monday, 30 October. The defendants’ lawyers were not present. The undersigned spoke to the defendants’ lawyers, who state they have not been allowed to meet their clients since their arrests.

Sayed Alawi Sayed Husain Al-Alawi was arrested exactly a year ago, on 24 October 2016, from his workplace. Sayed Alawi was forcibly disappeared. His family was denied information on the location of his detention. He was allowed to make his first call to his family on 14 December 2016, over seven weeks after his initial arrest. He told them he was being held at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). The CID repeatedly denied custody of Al-Alawi in response to requests by his family. When his family asked him again where he was and on what charges he was being held, the line went dead. Sayed Alawi has been allowed only four phone calls to his family since his arrest, the last on 27 July lasting only one minute. He has not been allowed to meet with his lawyer. Sayed Alawi is at high risk of torture and ill-treatment in his prolonged pre-trial detention. In August, the undersigned together with Amnesty International, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and CIVICUS wrote to Bahrain’s government oversight bodies urging immediate investigations into Sayed Alawi’s enforced disappearance and ill-treatment. We received no response.

Sayed Fadhel Abbas Hassan Radhi was arrested over a year ago on 29 September 2016 and held incommunicado for the majority of his extended pre-trial detention. Between September 2016 and May 2017, he was allowed to call his family just three times; on one of these occasions, his family members could hear a second voice telling him how to answer their questions. He has never been allowed to meet with his lawyer. Like Sayed Alawi, the length of his incommunicado detention places him at high risk of torture and ill-treatment. Sayed Fadhel was the first civilian to be referred to the Military Court: The Public Prosecution transferred him on 9 May. The undersigned spoke to Sayed Fadhel’s lawyers and understand this was the first actual appearance in the military court.

Muhammed Abdulhassan Al-Mutaghwi was one of 287 individuals arrested in Diraz on 23 May 2017. That day, security forces entered Diraz with overwhelming force, unlawfully killing five protesters and arresting hundreds. Muhammad Husain Al-Shehabi was arrested on 24 May in Diraz. Both have been held incommunicado, according to their lawyers and local social media. They have been prevented from meeting their lawyers and calling their families.

In March, Bahrain’s Constitution was amended to allow military courts to try civilians charged with crimes against the Bahrain Defence Force and Ministry of Interior Security Forces. Law 12 of 2017, decreed in April, put the amendment into effect. Both Sayed Alawi and Sayed Fadhel were arrested several months before this constitutional amendment passed.

The handling of the case to date evidences several violations of legal due process. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, anyone arrested must “be promptly informed of any charges against him” (Article 9.2). Multiple defendants, including Sayed Alawi Husain and Fadhel Sayed Radhi, were evidently not informed for many months of the charges they faced. All detainees are also entitled to “be brought promptly before a judge” to contest their detention “without delay” (Articles 9.3 and 9.4) – the procedural right known as habeas corpus in Anglo-American law. Most egregiously, the detainees in this case have been denied their right of access to an attorney and to prepare their own defence, which is guaranteed under Covenant Article 14.3(b) and is fundamental to all respectable legal systems. The use of military tribunals to try these civilian defendants is also presumptively illegitimate in the absence of any credible and compelling argument that the regularly constituted civilian courts are incapable of trying the case.

The Government of Bahrain previously granted military courts wide powers to try civilians when he declared a State of National Safety in March 2011, facilitating the authorities suppression of pro-democracy protesters. The National Safety Courts (NSC), as they were named, prosecuted at least 300 protesters according to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI, para 1289). Among those tried in the NSC were doctors, nurses, and a group of high-profile political leaders and human rights defenders sentenced to between five years and life imprisonment. The BICI found that “fundamental principles of a fair trial, including prompt and full access to legal counsel and inadmissibility of coerced testimony, were not respected” in these courts (para. 1720).

We, the undersigned, condemn the Bahraini government’s use of military courts to try civilians. The case against Al-Alawi, Radhi, Al-Mutaghwi and Al-Shehabi represent a deeply troubling reversal of reform commitments made following the report of the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and must again be stopped. We call on Government of Bahrain to immediately release the four defendants, following extensive due process violations in their arrest, detention, and trial proceedings. Finally, we call for an independent investigation into their treatment during their prolonged incommunicado detention, and for any abuse to be aggressively and proactively prosecuted, with a view towards accountability and transparency.

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)

Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD)

European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR)