UN Working Group “Gravely Concerned” and Calls for immediate & Unconditional Release of Dr. Al-Singace

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted an opinion on 27 March 2023 and published on its website on 6 June 2023 concerning the case of Bahraini human rights defender and opposition leader Dr. AbdulJalil Al-Singace. The 61-year old activist was arrested in 2011, brutally tortured, and tried in an unfair trial. He was also subjected to countless violations during his imprisonment, including ill-treatment and medical negligence. The Working Group found that the detention of Dr. Al-Singace was arbitrary under Categories I, II, III, and V. The WGAD also expressed that it is “gravely concerned” for his health situation, which has been deteriorating as a result of his hunger strike he started in protest of ill-treatment. As such, the Working Group called for the immediate and unconditional release of Dr. Al-Singace and to ensure that he receives adequate medical care.

“The Working Group confirms what everyone already knows: Dr. al-Singace has been imprisoned for over a decade on a sham conviction resulting from sham charges and a sham trial” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “If the Bahraini government has any respect for the international community at all – or even if it just has any shred of common decency – it will release Dr. al-Singace immediately.”

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), which served as the source of the complaint to the WGAD, gladly welcomes the Opinion of the Working Group, and echoes its calls for the immediate and unconditional release. The Working Group points out in the opinion that Bahrain has systematically committed severe violations in relation to the deprivation of liberty. In particular, the Working Group indicates that it has noticed a pattern of “arrest without a warrant, pretrial detention with limited access to judicial review, denial of  access to lawyers, forced confession, torture and ill-treatment, and denial of medical care.” Thus, the Working Group indicates that the immediate release of Dr. Al-Singace and his compensation for the crimes committed against him is the appropriate remedy. They also called for an impartial investigation to identify the perpetrators of the violations and to hold them accountable. The Working Group also referred the case of Dr. Al-Singace to five UN Special Procedure offices and indicated its readiness to conduct a country visit. ADHRB extends its full support of the WGAD’s findings and requests.

Two joint Allegation letters by the United Nations Special Procedures have been issued calling on Bahrain to end Dr. Al-Singace’s imprisonment and to remedy the situation by providing him with adequate healthcare.. The first was issued on 15 November 2021 by the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, disabilities, and health, and the second was issued on 30 December 2021 by the same Special Rapporteurs. Despite these letters, Bahrain has ignored these concerns, and continued to deny Dr. Al-Singace his basic rights.

The WGAD is one of the Special Procedures 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).

In the present Opinion, No. 2 /2023 adopted by the Working Group during its 96th session, the WGAD found that Dr. Al-Singace’s detention, the human rights defender, was arbitrarily detained under Categories I (lacking a legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty), II (in violation of the right to freedom of expression), III (his detention is arbitrary due to the unfair nature of her trial), and V (discrimination on the basis of his political opinion).

Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace is a professor with a PhD in mechanical engineering and a prominent human rights defender known for his advocacy work and blog “Al-Faseelah.”On 17 March 2011, masked armed and civilian forces broke into Dr. Al-Singace’s home and entered his bedroom. They pointed a gun to his head and forced him onto the ground. They did not present any arrest warrant or document, nor did they inform him of the charges against him. They dragged him out of his home from the second floor in his underwear and took away his crutches, which he needs due to his post-polio syndrome. He was insulted and abused by the arresting officers. Dr. Al-Singace was interrogated by the National Security Agency and military intelligence without the presence of his lawyer. He was severely tortured, beaten, threatened, and sexually assaulted. Around two weeks after his arrest, he was taken to the Military Prosecution, where his lawyer was only allowed to be present during the first meeting with the prosecutor, and Dr. Al-Singace was not allowed to be alone with him. Throughout this entire two-week period, Dr. Al-Singace was unable to contact his family and lawyer who did not know his whereabouts.

On 22 June 2011, the military National Safety Court sentenced Dr. Al-Singace to life imprisonment on the charge of attempting to overthrow the government. Dr. Al-Singace was only able to meet his family and lawyer after the issuance of the judgment, though the visits were not private. On 28 September 2011, the military Court of Appeals upheld Dr. Al-Singace’s life sentence. Dr. Al-Singace appealed to the Court of Cassation, which overturned the verdict and referred the case to the civilian High Court of Appeal on 30 April 2012. On 4 September 2012, the civilian High Court of Appeal held a retrial and upheld the sentence and on 7 January 2013. The civilian Court of Cassation upheld his sentence at final appeal. Dr. Al-Singace was not able to meet with his lawyer throughout the trials.

During his imprisonment, Dr. Al-Singace suffered from gruesome violations. Since July 2021, Dr. Al-Singace has been held in the Kanoo Medical Center. He has been on a hunger strike in protest against the degrading treatment in Jau Prison including the confiscation of a book which he had spent four years writing. It is noteworthy that the book is not political in nature but covers Bahraini culture and language. The officer has also refused to respond to Dr. Al-Singace’s requests to return the book to his family and allow him to make phone calls. He has been surviving on drinking tea with milk and sugar and taking vitamins in a drink. However, the administration regularly withholds sugar and milk from him in an effort to make him end his strike. As a result, Dr. Al-Singace has experienced low blood sugar levels and low blood pressure, and tremors in his eyes and chest. Furthermore, the authorities are not providing him treatment for his prostate, nerves, and joints, nor sharing the MRI images which he had done months prior. Dr. Al-Singace has not been seen by his assigned doctor since January 2022.

The Working Group states that the Bahraini government failed to respond to the claims that Dr. Al-Singace was warrantlessly arrested, was not informed of the reason for the arrest, and was not promptly brought before a judge. The WGAD reiterated that any deprivation of liberty without a valid arrest warrant issued by a competent, independent, and impartial judicial authority is contrary to article 9 (1) of the Covenant and lacks legal basis.

The Working Group also noted the circumstances surrounding Dr. Al-Singace’s arrest as the arresting forces reportedly insulted and mistreated him and his family members. The Working Group considered that”  these circumstances serve to compound the illegality of his arrest and the arbitrariness of his detention” .

Additionally, since the Government does not address the issue of when Dr. Al-Singace was first brought before a judicial authority, the Working Group concluded that “the information provided indicates that Dr. Al-Singace was not brought before a judicial authority within 48 hours of his arrest, in violation of article 9(3) of the Covenant”. The Working Group also emphasized that pretrial detention must be based on an individualized determination that it is reasonable and necessary for such purposes as to prevent flight, interference with evidence or the recurrence of a crime. However, in the case of Dr. Al-Singace, “his detention pending trial lacked a legal basis and was ordered in violation of article 9(3) of the Covenant”.

The Working Group recalled that international law prohibits enforced disappearances and considers them to be an aggravated form of arbitrary detention. Dr. Al-Singace was deprived of liberty against his will by government officials who failed to disclose his fate and whereabouts, and he was unable to contact his family and lawyer who did not know his whereabouts. The Working Group states that the government failed to respond to these claims, and thus, found “that Dr. Al-Singace was subjected to enforced disappearance, in contravention of articles 9 and 14 of the Covenant”.

Based on these facts, the Working Group concluded that Dr. Al-Singace’s detention lacked legal basis “rendering his detention arbitrary under category I” . Bahrain has violated basic provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Body of Principles, and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules).

In addition, the Working Group found that Dr. Al-Singace’s arrest was arbitrary under category II, since he was detained for the peaceful exercise of his rights under articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration and articles 19, 21, and 22 of the Covenant. The Working Group refers the case to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of  opinion and expression and the Special Rapporteur on peaceful assembly and of association. It also noted with concern the status of his previous arrests. Moreover, the prominent role that Dr. Al-Singace has played in defending human rights, prompted the WGAD to refer his case to the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.

Dr. Al-Singace was denied access to legal counsel throughout the entire period of his detention. The Working Group considers that ADHRB’s detailed submission established that Dr. Al-Singace did not have access to a lawyer from the outset of his detention, as well as at other key stages, including during his interrogation, which violated the UDHR, and article 14 of the ICCPR. These conventions were also violated when Dr. Al-Singace was tried before the National Safety Court, a military court. Accordingly, the WGAD considers this to be a violation to his right to a fair hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. The WGAD states that civilians should not be tried by military courts under any circumstances. The Working Group also notes that ADHRB presented a credible prima facie case that Dr. Al-Singace suffered torture and ill-treatment violating the aforementioned conventions. Thus, according to the WGAD, the conditions of his detention, particularly the torture he endured, “significantly undermined his ability to properly defend himself,” and referred Dr. ASingace’s case to the Special Rapporeteur on Torture. It also points out with concern the lack of independence and effectiveness of investigative agencies such as the Special Investigation Unit and the Ombudsman. As a result, the WGAD found that Dr. Al-Singace’s detention was arbitrary under category III, due to the grave violations of his  fair trial rights.

Finally, the WGAD found his detention to also be arbitrary under category V, due to the discriminatory nature of his arrest which was based on his political opinion.

The WGAD also expresses its “gravely concerned for the well-being of Dr. Al-Singace who has been on hunger strike since July 2022 to protest his mistreatment in detention and the confiscation of his manuscript” . It thus referred his case to the Special Rapporteur on Health and called on the government of Bahrain to provide him with adequate health care.

Based on the above, the WGAD urged Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release him which would be the adequate remedy for the violations he has faced. It also expressed its willingness to conduct a country visit to assess the situation in Bahrain.

ADHRB fully supports the WGAD’s recommendations and reiterates the WGAD’s call to immediately release Dr. Al-Singace and provide him with appropriate compensation in accordance with international law. ADHRB reiterates the Working Group’s demands for a thorough and impartial investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arbitrary deprivation of his liberty in order for appropriate measures to be taken to hold perpetrators to account.