In early 2011, simmering political tensions peaked with largely peaceful demonstrations in which thousands of Bahrainis called for substantial democratic reforms. Authorities responded with lethal force, resulting in 20 deaths, including five from torture in detention. They arrested over 1,600 people who participated in, or were suspected of supporting, the demonstrations, and held most detainees in incommunicado detention for weeks, in some cases months.
In July 2011, in response to international pressure, King Hamad appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate allegations of human rights abuses related to the February 2011 crackdown. In November 2011, the BICI released an approximately 500-page report detailing its findings, and concluded among other things, that the National Security Agency and the Ministry of Interior “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody.”
Its recommendations have led the government to establish three bodies since 2012—the Office of the Ombudsman in the Ministry of Interior, a Special Investigations Unit in the Office of the General Prosecutor, and the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC)—with a collective mandate to end torture in interrogation and detention facilities.
This report examines cases of alleged torture in Bahrain since the publication of the BICI report and the establishment of these offices. It finds that Bahraini authorities have failed to effectively implement the BICI recommendations for combatting torture; that the new offices have failed to fulfil their mandate; and that Bahraini security forces continue to torture detainees using methods identical to those documented by BICI investigators in 2011, and by Human Rights Watch in 2010.
Lack of available information on investigations and prosecutions, and the fact that there have been no prosecutions for torture in cases relating to Bahrain’s political unrest, support the conclusion that these institutions have not done enough to tackle what the BICI report described as a “culture of impunity” among the security forces.
This report is based on interviews with 10 detainees who said they endured coercive interrogations at the Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) and in police stations since 2012, and four former inmates of Jaw prison who said they endured torture in March 2015.
All said they had been physically assaulted. Several described electric shocks; suspension in painful positions, including by their wrists while handcuffed; forced standing; extreme cold; and abuse of a sexual nature. Many of the detainees interviewed also said that CID interrogators boasted of their reputation for torturing detainees. According to one, an interrogator told him, “I’ll show you why Wifaq (Bahrain’s Shia opposition party) calls Bahrain the capital of torture.” Another said a CID officer held something to his nose and told him it was “the blood of people who don’t cooperate.”
The abuses that interviewees described, while differing in detail, followed a general pattern, from the moment of arrest, through detention and interrogation, culminating in an interrogation with a public prosecutor. The techniques used violate Bahrain’s obligations as a state party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) and other international treaties, and contravene the prohibition of torture in Bahrain’s constitution and its penal code.
BICI Report and Recommendations
BICI experts identified the most common forms of mistreatment as blindfolding; handcuffing; enforced standing for prolonged periods; beating; punching; hitting the detainee with rubber hoses (including on the soles of the feet), cables, whips, metal, wooden planks or other objects; electrocution; sleep-deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; verbal abuse; threats of rape to the detainee or family members; and insulting the detainee’s religious sect (Shia).
The BICI report recommended the establishment of an independent and impartial mechanism to determine the accountability of government actors for acts of torture and mistreatment, with a view to bringing “legal and disciplinary action” against those individuals “including those in the chain of command found to be responsible under international standards of ‘superior responsibility.’”
The report also recommended that there should be audio-visual recordings of all official interviews with detainees.
The resulting Office of the Ombudsman in the Ministry of Interior, established in February 2012, is responsible for receiving complaints from detainees or their families, and for conducting prison visits. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), also established in February 2012, operates within the Office of the Public Prosecutor in the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, and is responsible for determining the criminal liability of government officials allegedly involved in mistreating detainees. A third body, the Prisoners and Detainees Rights Commission (PDRC), established in September 2013, is headed by the ombudsman and has a mandate to inspect places of detention and interview detainees, notify authorities of cases of torture, and propose recommendations to relevant authorities.
However, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit have fallen short in significant ways. In particular:
The Office of the Ombudsman: The Office of the Ombudsman has failed to report transparently on the limited steps authorities have taken to hold security officials accountable for mistreatment and torture. From the beginning of July 2013 to the end of April 2015, the Office of the Ombudsman referred only 83 of the 561 complaints it received to the SIU, which is charged with holding members of the police and security forces accountable for “killing, torture, injury, or abuse.” Neither the Office of the Ombudsman nor the SIU have released any information on the cases referred to the SIU for investigation, so it is unclear how many of those 83 cases involved allegations of torture; only one case, relating to allegations of drug dealing, resulted in a successful prosecution for torture. In addition to a lack of transparency, the Office of the Ombudsman remains embedded in the Ministry of Interior, which the BICI report concluded was responsible for a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment of detainees.
Special Investigations Unit: Staffed by individuals seconded by the Public Prosecution Office, the SIU has failed so far to hold security forces and high officials accountable for torture and serious mistreatment of persons in custody. Bahrain’s government-appointed National Institute for Human Rights has openly questioned the SIU’s independence and its ability to conduct effective and impartial investigations, concluding that the SIU “does not have the aspired independence and impartiality to ensure effective investigations.”
The establishment of the SIU, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the PDRC has been sufficient to earn the government considerable praise from Bahrain’s international allies. These include, in particular, the European Commission and United Kingdom. The UK gives Bahraini authorities a package of technical assistance, funding, and training, “focused on strengthening the oversight mechanisms responsible for investigating allegations of torture and mistreatment and supporting the reform of detention procedures in Bahrain.”
One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that CID officers beat his penis with a hose “until I couldn’t feel the pain anymore” and then forced several fingers into his anus. Two others said CID officers threatened them with rape. One detainee arrested in February 2015 said CID officers threatened to rape his wife and showed him pictures of his son, which they had on their phones.
All nine of those detained at the CID said that they remained handcuffed and blindfolded throughout their time there—typically several days—except when they were making videotaped confessions. Five individuals said that they made those confessions in the presence of a masked police officer.
Five former detainees said they told the public prosecutor that CID officers had mistreated them in detention. In two of those cases, the individuals said they refused to make confessions to the public prosecutor, who then ordered that they be returned to the CID where they were tortured until they made false confessions.
In only one of those cases was there an investigation into the torture allegations; in that case, apparently prompted by a public statement from Amnesty International, the investigation consisted of an interview with the alleged victim by a representative of the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman. These allegations of prosecutorial complicity are also consistent with a pattern Human Rights Watch documented in its 2010 report. In another case, a detainee’s family made a complaint directly to the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman about his alleged mistreatment. This resulted in a medical exam and an interview with SIU investigators, who asked the man to identify his alleged torturers.
Bahraini security forces also allegedly used torture to exact retribution against inmates in Jaw prison, many of whom were political prisoners. After violent unrest broke out there on March 10, riot police used tear gas and birdshot to regain control of four of the prison’s 10 buildings. They then forced hundreds of prisoners to stay outside and beat and humiliated them. One prisoner described how security forces made inmates strip to their underwear and exercise while shouting support for King Hamad. Another described how officers broke an inmate’s collarbone, then left him without medical attention. Security forces allegedly took a group of inmates accused of encouraging the riot to a building where they severely beat some inmates in toilets, where there are no CCTV cameras, and administration rooms.
Despite taking steps in establishing these bodies as recommended by BICI, Bahraini authorities have done so in a manner that appears intended to avoid the scrutiny of any impartial review of how they have functioned and with what degree of independence.
In April 2013, authorities cancelled the scheduled country visit of UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez after postponing an earlier visit scheduled for 2012. Since 2013, Bahraini authorities have also refused multiple requests made by Human Rights Watch for travel visas. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews for this report by phone and Skype.
Bahrain has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), which would require that it set up a transparent and fully independent inspectorate, referred to as National Preventive Mechanisms.
Given their lack of independence from the authorities they are charged with investigating, the institutions Bahrain has set up in response to the BICI recommendations fall well short of the most basic standards for National Preventive Mechanisms that OPCAT requires.
Among other steps that the government should take:
- Bahrain should issue an immediate and open invite to the UN special rapporteur on torture to conduct a country visit and allow unfettered access to detainees and all places of detention.
- Bahrain should ensure the independence of the ombudsman and the PDRC by severing all the ombudsman’s ties to the Ministry of Interior and the executive branch of government;
- Authorities should appoint a committee, drawn from a cross-section of civil society including lawyers, independent human rights activists, and political opposition members, to nominate candidates and approve the appointment of the ombudsman and PDRC members;
- Ombudsman reports should detail the nature of the complaints received, specify the reasons for any case’s dismissal, and—when complaints lead to disciplinary or criminal action—disclose the sanctions imposed and offenders’ names.
- A civilian oversight committee, including well-regarded independent experts, should scrutinize the work of the SIU and ensure its independence from the Ministry of Interior and the public prosecution, which itself has been implicated in torture. The committee should issue public reports at least annually on SIU work.
The international community, in particular Bahrain’s key allies the United States and the United Kingdom, should urge Bahrain to, at a minimum, issue a standing invite to the UN special rapporteur on torture in order to facilitate a truly independent and fully transparent assessment of the effectiveness of Bahrain’s anti-torture efforts.