Human Rights Violations Secure ‘Guilty’ Verdicts in Bahrain Courts: The “Al Ashtar Brigades” Case

United Nations body recognizes violations of international law by Bahrain

During its 94th session, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued its opinion regarding four Bahraini individuals who were arbitrarily detained in an unfair mass trial of eight defendants. The four young men, Sayed Mujtaba Saeed Alawi Ali AlKhabbaz (a minor at the time of his arrest), Hasan Hameed AbdulNabi Ali Naser Meshaimea, Sayed Ahmed Hadi Alawi Amin Hasan, and Sayed Mahmood Ali Moosa Jaafar AlAlawi, were accused of belonging and taking part in activities of the terrorist organization, the AlAshtar Brigades. This organization was accused of targeting American franchises, mainly by planting explosive canisters. After they were arrested and tortured into coerced confessions, they were sentenced to prison where they currently remain. Due to the violations endured by these four individuals, the WGAD determined they were arbitrarily detained under different categories and in violation of international law. It also issued recommendations to the government that included the immediate release of all four individuals.

As a matter of practice, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) regularly receives information from Bahraini individuals and employs their accounts as key evidence in submitted complaints by the United Nations (UN). ADHRB welcomes this Opinion by the UN and urges the Bahraini authorities to follow the recommendations without delay.

The WGAD is one of the Special Procedures offices of the UN Human Rights Council. As part of its regular procedures, the Working Group sends allegation letters to governments concerning credible cases of arbitrary detentions. The Working Group may also render opinions on whether an individual or group’s detention is arbitrary and in violation of international law. The WGAD reviews cases under five categories of arbitrary detention: when it is clearly impossible to invoke legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty (Category I); when the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of the rights to equal protection of the law, freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of assembly, among others (Category II); when violations of the right to a fair trial are so severe that the detention is rendered arbitrary (Category III); prolonged administrative custody for refugees and asylum seekers (Category IV); and when the detention is discriminatory on the basis of birth, national, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, economic condition, political or other opinion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other status (Category V).

Sayed Mahmood AlAlawi was arrested on 30 September while the rest were arrested on on 1 October 2020. At the time of their arrest, none of the four individuals were presented with an arrest warrant or were informed of the reason for their arrest. The Bahraini government ignored this issue in its initial reply to the WGAD, but addresses it in its late reply. The government claims that arrest warrants were in fact issued but does not state if they were invoked at the time of the arrest. The working group states that it is insufficient merely for the arrest to have a legal basis, but that it must be invoked at the time of the arrest. The WGAD attests that this did not take place in this case, nor did the authorities inform these four individuals of the reason for their arrest, thus violating article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Furthermore, the WGAD found that government of Bahrain violated article 9 of the Covenant by not bringing the four individuals before a judge within 48 hours, the optimal duration dictated by the Human Rights Council (HRC). The government also failed to address this issue in its replies. Additionally, the WGAD highlights that  Sayed Mujtaba AlKhabbaz, who was a minor at the time, was not brought before a judge within 24 hours, violating articles 37 and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The WGAD indicated another violation when the government prosecutor ordered the imprisonment of the four individuals and then referred the case to the criminal court. The WGAD states that a prosecutorial body cannot act as a judicial authority as the government prosecutor had done here.

The WGAD also points out that the government did not deny the four individuals were held incommunicado for varying durations of five to ten days and unable to contact their families or lawyers. Another similar example of an incommunicado violation occurred following a failed escape by AlAlawi from a psychiatric ward, where he was allowd to contact his family only once after his capture. Moreover, the WGAD states that these four individuals were unable to challenge their detention – a violation of article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 2 of the Covenant. Their inability to contact the outside world is also a violation of the Nelson Mandela Rules.

For all the above reasons, the WGAD found that the four individuals were arbitrarily detained under category I since the legal basis for their arrest was not present.

The WGAD states that all four individuals were not given a fair trial. All of the individuals were denied access to legal counsel during their interrogations. In the late response presented by the government, it stated that Meshaimea and AlAlawi were given access to a lawyer without mentioning anything about AlKhabbaz and Hassan. However, the WGAD found that the legal access granted to Meshaimea and AlAlawi was inadequate. Furthermore, the WGAD stated that all four individuals were not afforded the right to adequate time and facilities for the preparation of their defense and to communicate with counsel of choosing under article 14 of the Covenant. They also point to the violation of articles 37 and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the case of AlKhabbaz, who did not have access to legal counsel despite being a minor.

The WGAD also states that it is unconvinced with the government’s denial of using torture against the four individuals. In particular, it considered that the complaint submitted by ADHRB presented credible prima facie case that the individuals were in fact tortured. This is a violation  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ICCPR, as well as the Convention against Torture. In the case of AlKhabbaz, the use of torture against a minor violates the Convention on the Rights of Children. The government also violated these conventions when it allowed coerced confessions obtained from torture in the court proceedings for all four individuals. The individuals were also prevented from presenting evidence of their own for their defense. In the case of AlAlawi, the WGAD stated that the government does not refute the accusations that it fabricated evidence against him to falsely incriminate him. They also expressed concern regarding the SIU’s role in investigating the use of torture against detainees. As such, the WGAD found that the violations of the individuals’ fair trial and due process rights in this case are strong enough to render their detention arbitrary under category III.

The WGAD provided thorough recommendations to the government. It expresses its concern regarding the health of AlKhabbaz and AlAlawi who both suffer from serious medical illnesses. As such, the WGAD found that the violations of international norms and laws committed by the government of Bahrain against these four individuals renders their detention arbitrary under category I and III. The WGAD calls on the government of Bahrain to immediately release all four individuals and remedy the situation through compensation for the damage it had caused. It also called for an investigation of the circumstances. Finally, it has also referred the case to the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, for appropriate action.

ADHRB firmly supports and stands behind the WGAD opinion, and calls on the government to release all four individuals immediately. ADHRB additionally echoes the Working Group’s demands for a full and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of the five victims in order for appropriate measures to be taken against those responsible for the violation of their rights.