United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture
26 June 2021 – On 26th June, the United Nations will observe International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, raising awareness about the continued scourge of torture throughout the world. On this solemn day, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) stand in solidarity with torture survivors and call upon the international community to work to put an end to the systematic use of torture in Bahrain and the culture of impunity which prevails in the country and allows perpetrators of abuses to evade justice.
Despite supposedly committing to reforms, Bahrain’s human rights record has continued to deteriorate in recent years. In 2017, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) strongly criticised the systematic abuse of individuals held in police custody, but three years later torture remains deeply ingrained in the Bahraini justice system and abuses are widely and consistently reported across detention centres.
Bahrain’s judiciary continues to rely heavily on coerced confessions to prosecute defendants and perpetrators of abuses are seldom held accountable. As Human Rights Watch noted last year, the few prosecutions that have been pursued against Bahraini officers accused of human rights abuses have “almost exclusively involved low-ranking officers and have – without exception – resulted in acquittals or disproportionately light sentences.”
Furthermore, research by rights groups has found that institutions in Bahrain backed by the UK government – most notably human rights oversight bodies including the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, the Special Investigations Unit and the National Institute of Human Rights – have consistently failed to adequately investigate human rights abuses and even actively concealed evidence of abuse. Indeed, in 2017, the UN Committee Against Torture deemed these bodies to be not “not independent” and “not effective,” whilst earlier this year, Amnesty International declared that they “remained ineffective in safeguarding human rights and punishing violations.”
Continued use of torture and death penalty against dissidents
Since Bahrain’s pro-democracy protest movement was crushed in 2011, Bahrain’s political opposition has been ruthlessly suppressed, with torture a central element of the state’s repressive apparatus. The majority of opposition leaders, including Dr. Abdujalil AlSingace, Abdulwahab Hussain, Hassan Mushaima, Mohammed Habib al-Miqdad and Abdulhadi AlKhawaja, remain incarcerated at Bahrain’s notorious Jau Prison, where they continue to be subjected to ill-treatment.
Within Bahraini detention centres, where overcrowding and poor sanitation are widespread, prisoners are also frequently subjected to torture, religious discrimination and other forms of ill-treatment. On 17 April, Bahraini riot police violently suppressed a peaceful sit-in held by political prisoners at Jau Prison to protest against prison conditions, leaving several inmates with serious injuries and one prisoner requiring hospitalisation.
Among the most disturbing trends in Bahrain’s recent history has been a dramatic rise in the use of the death penalty since the government abandoned a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in 2017. Bahrain has since conducted six executions, five of which were condemned as arbitrary by UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard, in 2017 and 2019. According to documentation by Reprieve and BIRD, the number of people sentenced to death in Bahrain rose by 600% in the decade following the Arab Spring, from just 7 between 2001 to 2010 to 51 in the period since. 26 individuals currently face imminent execution in the country, nearly half of whom were convicted on the basis of confessions extracted under torture, in cases related to political unrest.
Among them are Mohammed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa, whose death sentences were upheld last July despite the UN urging Bahrain to quash their convictions. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has recently issued an opinion deeming Ramadhan and Moosa’s detention “arbitrary” and unlawful, calling for their immediate release, compensation and other reparations, citing a range of violations of international law, including arrests without warrants, denial of access to lawyers, forced confessions, torture, ill-treatment and denial of medical care.
Another concerning trend in Bahraini detention facilities is the continued prevalence of medical negligence, which continues to be used punitively against political prisoners. This practice has been condemned repeatedly by the international community, including by four UN Special Rapporteurs in September 2019 and a further eight Special Rapporteurs in November 2019.
Tragically, in February 2020, this callous policy also contributed to the premature death from cancer of 24-year old Sayed Kadhem Abbas, who, despite complaining to Jau Prison authorities for months of severe headaches, vomiting and loss of consciousness, was left without specialist treatment for months in 2018. Following this tragedy, two more political prisoners lost their lives in Jau Prison this year; 29-year-old Abbas Mallah, and 48-year-old Husain Barakat, who died on 6 April and 9 June respectively. Both Abbas and Husain died amid reports that prison authorities failed to provide adequate or timely medical care.
Medical negligence is particularly concerning in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned poses a heightened threat to prison populations. Despite leading rights groups calling on Bahrain to release political prisoners in light of the risks posed by COVID-19, there have been two outbreaks of coronavirus since March; On 9 June 2021, political prisoner Husain Barakat died after contracting COVID-19 in Bahrain’s Jau Prison, amid reports that prison authorities failed to provide adequate or timely medical care. Such outbreaks place aging leaders of the 2011 pro-democracy protests at serious risk, including Hassan Mushaima, Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace and Sheikh Abduljalil Al-Muqdad, all of whom suffer a range of chronic health conditions and have endured prolonged medical negligence for years.
On 22 June 2021, a UN expert called on Bahrain to immediately release Abdulhadi AlKhawaja, Abduljalil Al Singace and Naji Fateel, all of whom are “suffering long term detention as a result of their legitimate promotion and protection of human rights in the country”.
Despite the widespread use of torture, medical negligence and the return of the death penalty, Bahrain continues to receive unwavering support from its Western allies, particularly from the US and the UK governments. Much vaunted human rights oversight bodies mandated to independently investigate human rights violations, including the National Institution for Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit, are among the Bahraini institutions which have enjoyed significant UK funding and training. Despite a well-documented lack of impartiality and effectiveness, as well as allegations of their complicity in covering up human rights abuses, the UK government has persistently lauded the success of these institutions and continues to refer torture victims to them.
More recently, alarming allegations of torture have been directly linked to Bahrain’s Royal Academy of Policing (RAP), where the UK-based University of Huddersfield teaches an exclusive MSc in Security Science. In February 2020, The Times reported that prisoners describe the Academy as a “torture hub”. Indeed, it has recently emerged that death row inmates, including Zuhair Ebrahim and the executed Ali Al Arab, are among those tortured at the Academy site. However, University of Huddersfield has refused to disclose how much they profit from the course and rejected calls to suspend its MSc course, citing the UK government’s friendly relations with Bahrain.
The unwavering support of Washington and London has provided Bahrain with a convenient veneer of reform concealing a deeply entrenched culture of torture, corruption and state violence in the Kingdom. On International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, ADHRB and BIRD call on the international community, and particularly lawmakers in the UK and US, to take a stand by calling on Bahrain to allow an independent investigation into allegations of torture and ill treatment in the country with a view to holding perpetrators accountable, as specified in the Bahraini constitution.