Ebrahim Jawad Sarhan is a Bahraini attorney. On 23 May 2017 he was contacted by the Lebanese broadcaster Al Mayadeen for an interview on the violent dispersal of sit-in protesters gathered around the home of Sheikh Isa Qassim. Sarhan limited his comments to legal aspects of the issue, noting that five people had been killed and calling on the international human rights community to monitor the situation. The following morning he was summoned to the National Security Agency’s facility in Muharraq for questioning. He was told that if he did not surrender himself his home would be raided.
Although Sarhan brought an attorney with him, as soon as he arrived at the Muharraq station his lawyer was sent away. Sarhan was brought into a dark room with bloodstains on the floor. The two interrogators present beat him in the face, forced his legs apart and kicked him in the genitals, electrocuted him, and threatened to rape female members of his family. The physical violence was accompanied by sectarian denigration of Sarhan’s Shia faith, as is common practice among Bahraini security forces. The interrogation focused in part on the now-dissolved Al Wefaq party, to which Sarhan has given legal advice in the past.
At the end of the interrogation Sarhan was told that he would soon be transferred to the Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Investigations Directorate to be charged with “inciting antipathy and contempt for the ruling system.” The charge, raised under Article 165 of Bahrain’s highly speech-suppressive Penal Code, is regularly invoked against those who criticize the government. It has been used within the past year to imprison prominent opposition politician Ebrahim Sharif and the well-known human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. In Sarhan’s case, the torturers told him he could expect to spend three years in prison for his interview. As of this writing it appears he has been released on remand pending trial. Conviction is likely, given Bahrain’s record, and the possibility that the torturers will be punished and Mr. Sarhan will receive redress for what he has suffered is negligible.
Sarhan’s ordeal constitutes another example of the Bahraini state’s pattern of suppressing speech by extreme means: torture and imprisonment. The choice to pursue Sarhan over comments that were not couched as explicit criticism of the government is also emblematic of the loss of restraint that has characterized the Bahraini state’s behavior in 2017. Without international attention, diplomatic pressure, and real consequences like the revocation of US financial and military rewards, Bahrain will continue to feel free to disregard its obligations under the Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and customary international law.