Analysis: Bahrain’s Insufficient Response to the Allegation Letter Published by UN Experts on Human Rights Violations

Find our previous statement on the allegation letter sent to Bahrain on Human Rights Violations in the Mass Trial of the Zulfiqar Brigades here.

On 5 November 2018, five UN experts sent an allegation letter to the Kingdom of Bahrain to address the human rights violations in connection to the mass trial of the “Zulfiqar Brigades.” In the UN experts’ letter, the Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment had expressed their concerns over the systematic violations of human rights by the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) of the Ministry of Interior (MOI). They explicitly noted the role of “the ‘riot police,’ ‘commandos’ (which typically refers to the Special Security Force Command), and the National Security Agency (NSA)” during the detention and subsequent mass trial of 138 defendants in May 2018 for allegedly belong to a terrorist organization. The letter also requested an explanation from Bahraini authorities regarding the arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, unfair trial, denial of religious freedom rights, torture during interrogation, restrictions on access to medical care, legal counsel and family visits, and conviction based on forced confession used against at least 20 of the 138 defendants.

The Kingdom of Bahrain delivered two responses, on 4 and 16 January 2019, to address the concerns raised by the UN Special Procedures. Despite the wide range of concerns raised by the UN experts in their letter, both of the Bahraini government’s responses only addressed the accusations of denial of access to medical care, restrictions on religious practices, and ability to communicate with family members. In the first response, the Government stated that the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) had conducted investigations on 13 complaints raised by members of the Zulfiqar Brigades, but most of them were dissolved due to “the lack of evidence” and “no evidence of any injuries;” however, this leads to the conclusion that the SIU did not investigate claims of psychological torture. Further, the fact that some of these injuries could have healed at the time of examination, does not necessarily mean that the victim was not tortured. The response also noted different agencies in Bahrain created to enforce the country’s counter-terrorism law. However, it neglected completely to address the allegations of arbitrary arrests, disappearances, or unfair trial proceedings by Bahraini law enforcement. In the second response, Bahrain repeatedly emphasized that defendants received medical treatment and were able to talk with their family members, in an apparent attempt to prove its compliance with human rights standards in detention facilities. However, the response also failed to address the issue of arbitrary arrest and detention, forced disappearance, denial of access to legal counsel, and convictions based on coerced confessions.

For instance, the experts raised concerns surrounding Hasan Radhi Hasan Abdulla AlBaqali’s forced return to Bahrain from Oman and his torture in detention. They alleged that in February 2016, Bahraini security forces injected AlBaqali “with a drug that left him unconscious and forcibly returned him to Bahrain aboard a private plane.” In detention, he received death threats against him and his wife. The government’s response concludes that no existing injuries are aligned with AlBaqali’s complaint of torture and neglects all other accusations. The response further noted that AlBaqali submitted a complaint to the SIU that on 14 November 2016 security forces beat him to “obtain information” – or a forced confession. However, the forensic physician “concluded that he was not suffering from any injuries consistent with his assertion and allegation” – despite the fact that AlBaqali required hospitalization following this beating. This sole finding of a “lack of evidence” is insufficient to prove that the torture did not happen, and the SIU should have used other means to investigate the Public Security Forces. The SIU, however, only questioned “members of the Public Security Forces about their interaction with the complainant,” and concluded that it is lack of evidence for prosecution immediately after they denied AlBaqali’s allegations. This specific case reveals the irresponsibility of the SIU and their consistent pattern of exempting alleged law enforcers.

In its first response, Bahrain lists legislation which gives them the legitimacy to criminalize the Zulfiqar Brigades, and provides the codes and protocols in place to protect their civil rights. The real concern raised by the UN experts, that Bahraini authorities have violated international laws through unwarranted arrests, coerced confession, torture and denied access to lawyers, was, however, not addressed at all. For instance, Bahrain claims that “Article 61 of the Code of Criminal Procedure stipulates that no one may be arrested or detained other than by order of the legally competent authorities.” However, the government fails to disclose whether these domestic provisions were properly enforced and followed in these individual cases. Further, the cases in the allegation letter are evidence that not only is Bahrain in violation of international laws and obligations, but the security forces and judicial authorities have also violated domestic Bahraini law in their treatment of these individuals. As Bahrain avoids addressing the human rights violations, it continues to fuel the atmosphere of impunity within law enforcement agencies.

In its second response, Bahrain claims that “the allegations of torture and ill treatment during investigations” are out of the jurisdiction of the MOI, and that these allegations “are subject to the authority of the Public Prosecution Service.” However, since 2011, ADHRB has documented over 1,000 cases of severe abuse and over 3,000 specific human rights violations attributed to the MOI. In the course of our documentation, we have confirmed that the MOI is not only Bahrain’s chief law enforcement agency, but its most prolific criminal agency and the epicenter of the vast majority of human rights violations in the country. The Ministry comprises a number of different agencies and institutions, including the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Sciences, which oversees the CID, from where the majority of torture allegations emanate; and the General Directorate of Reformation and Rehabilitation, which oversees Bahrain’s notorious Jau Prison where violence is used regularly against prisoners. Through mapping the role and responsibilities of the MOI and its sub agencies, ADHRB has found that, contrary to Bahrain’s second response, the MOI is actively involved in arbitrary arrests, systematic torture, and other human rights violations.

In addition, the Bahraini government refers to five investigatory agencies as those mandated to resolve grievances and human rights abuses. They are the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), the Office of the Ombudsman of the MOI, the Internal Audit and Investigations Department, the SIU, and the Independent Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Standards in the NSA. These agencies, however, are fundamentally flawed. ADHRB found that the PDRC “fails to meet the guidelines for a National Preventative Mechanism as established by the Optional Protocol for the Convention against Torture (OP-CAT).” Most importantly, the PDRC is not independent of the Bahraini government and its officials frequently come from public prosecution offices where they were previously responsible for sentencing prisoners of conscience. As a result, the PDRC is not able to adequately address allegations of torture or hold perpetrators accountable.

Similarly, the Office of the Ombudsman of the MOI is not independent enough to adequately investigate concerns about rights abuses because it depends heavily on the Ministry for funding and authority and relies on the SIU for prosecution. The Ombudsman also has a history of sidestepping human rights issues and neglecting severe violations. We further found that despite the number of abuses committed by MOI forces, the MOI Ombudsman has referred only 5% of the cases for serious prosecutions. We have also found its annual reports to consistently whitewash police abuses, helping to foster an environment of impunity. Moreover, the lack of independence restrains the Ombudsman’s freedom to conduct impartial investigations of the MOI, the very body that is responsible for the vast majority of rights abuses in Bahrain.

In addition, fears about reprisals from MOI personnel further prevent victims of human rights abuses from filing complaints. ADHRB has recorded eight specific cases in which would-be complainants have been coerced or threatened by Ombudsman officers into not filing or following up on complaints. For instance, MOI Ombudsman officers would complete false questionnaires on behalf of these individuals, in order to have a paper trail of the victim stating that their complaints have been resolved and their needs met, regardless of whether this is actually the case. In some cases, this has also included threatening inmates until they signed a form refusing medical treatment. One officer even threatened to kill a complainant and his family if he did not to stop reporting his abuses.

The second response also mentions the SIU, which was founded in 2012 as a subdivision of the Public Prosecution Office, and which “operates under the authority of the Attorney General, whose own impartiality and willingness to uphold international legal standards of justice remain in question.” The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) Follow-up Unit also mentioned that the SIU faces challenges during investigation. The BICI found that the SIU attempted to interview officials accused of rights abuses, but the officials refused to cooperate with the agency, thereby demonstrating an atmosphere of impunity and the sense they do not need to answer for their crimes.

Lastly, the second response refers the victims and their families to the NSA’s Inspector General (IG) if they wish to file complaints, as this office is ostensibly responsible for monitoring, receiving, and examining complaints and reports concerning ill-treatment of persons by Agency staff. Despite this mandate, however, the Office is structurally disinclined to seriously and effectively investigate and report on allegations of rights abuses. For instance, the Head of the NSA suggests the appointment or dismissal of the NSA IG subject to approval by the Prime Minister. The NSA also has power over the NSA IG’s budget. Moreover, until May 2017, the NSA IG has not published any results of its investigations yet, which makes it impossible to assess the effectiveness of its work.

Bahrain’s responses to the allegation letter sent by UN experts fail to address the arbitrary (often warrantless) arrest, the unfair trial and other human rights violations along the process of convicting them. The Bahraini government has further attempted to avoid responsibility for abuses by deflecting concerns away from the MOI, and stating that victims should seek help from agencies under the authority of the Public Prosecution, although reprisals and threats have deterred victims from filing complaints. Overall, the Bahraini government has not addressed the concerns iterated by the Special Procedures and their refusal to do so indicates their culpability in abuses against the members of the so-called Zulfiqar Brigades and a lack of accountability for the government and its agents.

For a PDF version of the first response, please click here.
For a PDF version of the second response, please click here.

Cindy Lu is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB