UN WGAD finds the detention of six Bahraini students arbitrary and subjected to torture and coerce confessions

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted an opinion on  20 June 2023 and published it on its website during its 96th session concerning six Bahraini students, three of whom were minors at the time of the arrest, who were arbitrarily arrested and subjected to gruesome human rights violations. Concerned with the severity of the torture the six individuals were subjected to, the Working Group found that their detention was arbitrary under Categories I and III.

The WGAD indicates that the complaint which was submitted by Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) includes the same pattern of violations that have been submitted in other complaints, including “warrantless, pretrial detention with limited access to judicial review, denial of access to lawyers, forced confession, torture and ill-treatment and denial of medical care.” As such, the Working Group indicates that the severe violations concerning the deprivation of liberty should be remedied by Bahrain, with the appropriate action being the immediate and urgent release of all six prisoners. They also called for an impartial investigation to identify the perpetrators of the violations and to hold them accountable. The Working Group also referred this complaint to two other UN Special Procedure offices, the Special Rapporteur on torture and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and welcomed the opportunity to conduct a country visit.

ADHRB welcomes and wishes to express its utmost support for the present opinion and reiterates the WGAD’s call to release the six prisoners immediately.

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 violates international law. The WGAD reviews cases under five categories of arbitrary detention: when it is impossible to invoke a 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 based on birth, national, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, economic condition, political or other opinions, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other status (Category V).

In the present Opinion, No. 25/2023, adopted by the Working Group during its 96th session, the WGAD found all six prisoners, Ahmed Ali Ahmed Yusuf, Alaa Mansoor Mohamed Redha Ahmed Ansaif, Husain Ali Hasan Ali Mohamed Matar, Husain Ali Jaafar Mohamed Abdulla, Mohamed Ali Mohsen Abdulla Baddaw and Sayed Husain Saeed Alawi Ali Mohamed Al-Khabbaz were arbitrarily detained under Categories I (lacking a legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty), and III (his detention is arbitrary due to the unfair nature of her trial).

All six individuals were arrested without a warrant, with four being subjected to enforced disappearance and subjected to severe forms of torture, including the use of electric shock, physical beating, deprivation of sleep, verbal harassment and threats, forced nudity in cold conditions, forced standing for hours, denial of praying, chaining, blindfolding, and denial of medical care during Covid Pandemic. They were also denied legal counsel and fair trial procedures. It is important to note that three individuals – Ansaif, Matar, and Al-Khabbaz – were minors during their arrest and were also subjected to severe forms of violation, including torture and denial of legal counsel or guardian.

The Working Group states that the Bahraini government failed to respond to the claims that all six individuals were warrantlessly arrested and were not informed of the reason for the arrest. Therefore, the legal basis for the arrest was not invoked. However, while the WGAD points out the government is exempted from presenting a warrant in the case of Yusuf, who was arrested in flagrante delicto according to the government’s claim, or while committing the offense, the Working Group concludes that the government still failed to establish a legal basis for the arrest of all six individuals, violating article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Additionally, they were not brought promptly before a judge as required. The WGAD indicates that individuals should be brought before a judge within 48 hours, and any delay “must remain exceptional and be justified under the circumstances.” As none of the individuals were brought within this specified time, authorities have thus violated Article 9 of the ICCPR. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) also indicates that children should be brought within 24 hours before a judge when arrested, which was not the case with the three minors.

The Working Group also indicates that the government does not deny the allegation presented by ADHRB regarding the enforced disappearance of four individuals but simply “lists the number of visits and video calls of the six individuals from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic until 8 March 2023.” However, only Matar was arrested in 2022, with the five remaining being arrested between 2013 and 2017. Thus, the Working Group found that three individuals, Yusuf, Ansaif, and Abdulla, were subjected to enforced disappearance, which it describes as an “aggravated form of arbitrary detention.”

Finally, the WGAD also points out that the inability of the six individuals to challenge their detention by being restricted from accessing the outside world, including “to family members and independent medical personnel and lawyers,” is also a violation committed by the government. This violates Article 9 of the ICCPR, article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and Rule 58 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) on the right of prisoners to contact the outside world.

Thus, based on the above, the Working Group concluded that the detention of all six individuals is arbitrary under Category I due to a lack of legal basis.

The Working Group indicates that ADHRB established that all six individuals were denied their right to a fair trial due to violations related to their access to legal counsel from the time of their arrest and during their interrogations. Mr. Yusuf was interrogated without a lawyer present, and although a lawyer was eventually present during his interview and trial, they were not allowed to speak. Ansaif, Abdulla, and Al-Khabbaz were denied a lawyer throughout their investigations and trials. Mr. Matar could not communicate with his lawyer during his investigation and trial. Mr. Baddaw was interrogated without a lawyer, and his lawyer was not permitted to speak during his trial. Thus, the Working Group indicates that all six individuals were not afforded the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense, violating Article 14 of the ICCPR. It also recalls the right of the three minors under the CRC to access legal assistance for their defense, which was not the case with Ansaif, Matar, and Al-Khabbaz.

The Working Group then indicates that ADHRB provides detailed descriptions of severe physical and psychological torture allegedly inflicted upon the individuals. The government argues that three of the individuals, Yusuf, Ansaif, and Matar, did not allege torture or ill-treatment and did not file complaints to the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), nor did the  Badaw, Abdulla, and Al-Khabbaz submit any complaint. Moreover, complaints submitted by families to the Ombudsman and the National Human Rights Institution have not received any response. The Working Group expresses its concern regarding the effectiveness of the SIU, indicating that the Ombudsman and the SIU had “had little or no effect.” Additionally, the government’s response regarding the observation of two individuals by a forensic doctor lacks specific details. The Working Group concludes that ADHRB has presented a credible prima facie case of physical and psychological torture and ill-treatment, violating human rights declarations and conventions. The Working Group concludes that Bahraini authorities have violated Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 7 of the ICCPR and the CRC, and Articles 2 and 16 of the Convention against Torture (CAT) in the cases of the three minors.

As five individuals confessed as a result of torture, while the sixth confessed under the threat of torture, the Working Group indicates that “the admission into evidence of a statement obtained through torture renders the entire proceedings unfair.” The use of torture to obtain confessions violates articles 2, 15, and 16 of the CAT. The WGAD also indicates that “self-incriminating confessions are amplified when the victim is a child” about the case of Ansaif, Matar, and Al-Khabbaz. In addition, Yusuf, Ansaif, Matar, and Al-Khabbaz could not present evidence during the trial. At the same time, the WGAD indicates that the government failed to address the claim of fabricated evidence in the case of Ansaif and the sentencing in absentia.

As a result, the Working Group finds that the six individuals’ fair trial and due process rights were violated, rendering their detention arbitrary under category III.

Given the facts presented, the Working Group expresses its concern regarding the torture the six individuals were subjected to and the violations suffered during the Covid pandemic. The WGAD also recalls the right to education, as all six individuals were students at the time of the arrest, and calls on the government to take all the necessary measures to ensure this right. Finally, it reiterates its readiness to conduct a country visit.

ADHRB fully supports the WGAD’s recommendations and reiterates its call to immediately release all six prisoners and provide them with appropriate compensation in accordance with international law. ADHRB reiterates the Working Group’s demands for a thorough and impartial investigation into the arbitrary deprivation of his liberty for appropriate measures to be taken to hold perpetrators accountable.