UN Experts Send Allegation Letter to Bahrain Regarding Severe Violations in the Cases of Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas and Ali AbdulHusain AlWazeer

Four United Nations (UN) Special Procedures offices have published on their website the allegation letter sent to the Government of Bahrain on June 28, 2021, concerning the human rights violations faced by Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Mohamed Abbas and Ali AbdulHusain Ali Hasan Ali AlWazeer. These included arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and non-access to due process rights. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) served as the source of information on these cases, through its UN Complaint Program.

The allegation letter – signed by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment – detailed the cases of Sheikh Abbas and AlWazeer, and expressed its concerns regarding the alleged violations that the two prisoners have suffered. It also listed the relevant international human rights laws allegedly violated, and requested the Government of Bahrain take measures to halt these violations and hold perpetrators accountable. It is noteworthy that the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention may transmit the cases through its regular procedures, in order to render an opinion on whether the deprivation of liberty was arbitrary or not, to which the government must respond separately.

In the letter, the Special Procedures focused on an incident that took place on August 29, 2020, in which an altercation ensued between AlWazeer and a guard who insulted the religious ritual AlWazeer was practicing. At the time of the incident, AlWazeer shared the same cell as Sheikh Abass. The guard was injured during the altercation. As a result, AlWazeer and Sheikh Abbas were removed from their cells and subjected to enforced disappearance for some time. It later became known that on August 30, they were transferred to the Royal Academy building and then to the Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) building in Adliya, where they were interrogated and subjected to severe beatings. Due to the severe torture inflicted, AlWazeer was forced to visit the prison clinic to attend to two broken front teeth and a dislocated shoulder.

Prior to the incident, Sheikh Abbas and AlWazeer had participated in several strikes between July and August 2020, together with other prisoners in Buildings 13 and 14 in Jau Prison. They demanded proper medical care, an end to the use of severe shackling, a stop to the harassment of prisoners during calls and visits, the provision of personal hygiene products at the canteen, and the allowance of prisoners to practice religious rituals freely. On August 10, 2020, following a hunger strike which had started the previous day, Sheikh Abbas and AlWazeer were transferred to Building 15, on grounds of inciting other prisoners to go on strike. They were later isolated in a cell with three other prisoners from different cultures and languages. This form of cell-assignment is perceived as a form of reprisal to further isolate them and prevent them from performing collective Ashura (Shiite) rituals.

From July 2020 to January 17, 2021, Sheikh Abbas’ relatives had not heard from him. Later, it became known that from September 5, 2020 to January 7, 2021, he had been held in solitary confinement in Building 15. Furthermore, it was reported that in February 2021, AlWazeer was physically assaulted by four prisoners and was harassed while praying. The prison administration allegedly held him responsible for the altercation and transferred him to solitary confinement for a week, from February 20 to 26, 2021, as punishment. This epitomizes the discrimination that Shia prisoners face and their inability to freely practice their religion.

Sheikh Abbas is currently facing charges of incitement to commit murder in relation to the August 29, 2020 incident involving the prison guard. As for AlWazeer, he was further charged with attempted murder.

Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas is a religious scholar and former teacher at Hoza Al Sayed Al Gharifi. He has been incarcerated at the Jau Prison in Bahrain since 2013. During interrogations, Sheikh Abbas was subjected to beatings, electric shocks, and forced to stand all day and night. He was further forced to sign documents while blindfolded. Furthermore, he was informed of the charges against him for the first time upon his arrival at the Dry Dock Detention Center more than a month after his arrest. Sheikh Abbas was initially imprisoned in Building 14 of Jau Prison where he was beaten, denied access to food, showers, sleep, and appropriate medical care. Moreover, he was forbidden from performing prayers, and was also threatened that he would soon be executed. Officers also confiscated religious books and prevented Sheikh Abbas from practicing his religious rituals.

As for Ali AbdulHusain AlWazeer, he has been incarcerated in Bahrina’s Jau Prison since 2013. After his arrest, AlWazeer was subjected to enforced disappearance for three months. It later became known that during this period, he was held at Qudaibiya Police Station, where he spent 40 days in solitary confinement. The size of the cell did not allow him to sleep, he was prohibited from cleaning himself, and there were rats in the cell. During his interrogation, AlWazeer was placed in a dark room where he was beaten with a pipe, endured electric shocks to his private parts, and was forced to imitate the sound of a duck. Officers would then proceed to torture him if the sound was not identical. Officers also threatened him and his family. AlWazeer did not have an attorney, and, under torture, was coerced into signing a statement. He received sentences amounting to 56 years in prison on three different charges.

In the letter, the UN Special Procedures offices expressed their deepest concerns regarding:

“the acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment against Sheikh Abbas and Mr. AlWazeer, which seems to be a pattern of abuse against prisoners from Shiite religious minority in Bahrain. We also express our concern with regards to violations of the right to liberty and security of the two individuals and the right to due process during the stages leading up to sentencing. Concern is also expressed at the reported deplorable conditions of detention, the excessive use of solitary confinement, denial of medical care, as well as denial of fundamental safeguards such as access to a lawyer and contact with the family. We also express concern that the above-mentioned individuals were prevented from professing their faith through religious prayers or rituals, hence amounting to a violation of their rights to freedom of religion and belief”.

The UN Special Procedures stated that if the facts provided are confirmed, then the Bahraini government would be in violation of, inter alia, articles 2, 7, 9, 10, 14, 17, and 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bahrain is a party; and article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). They also stressed the absolute and non-derogable nature of the prohibition of torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment as codified in articles 2 and 16 of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and emphasized that it is an international norm of jus cogens.

Furthermore, in the annex of the letter, the UN Special Procedures reminded the Bahraini government of the relevant international human rights law that the state must abide by concerning the facts of these two cases. In addition to provisions contained in UDHR, ICCPR, and CAT, they reminded the government of principle 15 and 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Officials, which refers to the only permissible situations in which law enforcement officials are allowed to use force and firearms against persons in custody or detention. Moreover, they drew the attention of the Bahraini government to paragraph 27 of General Assembly Resolution 68/156 (February 2014), which affirms that prolonged incommunicado detention or detention in secret places can in itself constitute a form of torture, inhumane, and degrading treatment. They also referred the government to the statement of the Human Rights Committee in paragraph 17 of its General Comment No. 35, which asserts that enforced disappearances can constitute a particularly aggravated form of arbitrary detention.

In addition, the Special Procedures referred the government to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules), with specific reference to rules 1 and 45, which stipulate that all prisoners shall be treated with respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings, and that solitary confinement should only utilized as a last resort, with any confinement exceeding 15 consecutive days considered as prolonged solitary confinement. Furthermore, they also mentioned rule 42 which states that so far as practical, prisoners must be permitted to practice their religion as they desire. Also concerning the right of prisoners to exercise their religion in prison, the letter referred to paragraph 8 of the Human Rights Committee General Comment 22.

ADHRB welcomes the commentary of the Special Procedures offices and echoes their concerns regarding warrantless arrests, torture to produce confessions, unfair trial proceedings, the ill-treatment of prisoners, denial of contact with family members, and the religious discrimination faced by Shia prisoners in relation to practicing their faith.

In light of these unfair and unlawful practices, ADHRB calls on the Bahraini authorities to overturn the convictions of Sheikh Abbas and AlWazeer, particularly considering the violations they endured to their due process rights and fair trial standards when convicted. We also call on the Bahraini authorities to open transparent and impartial investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to combat the extant culture of impunity in Bahrain. We also urge the Bahraini authorities to stop discriminating against and harassing Shia prisoners, and to guarantee their right to freedom of religion.