Bahrain’s UK-backed human rights bodies fall short on 2011 promises of reform
Five years after Bahrain’s 2011 uprising, which saw peaceful protesters beaten, shot, and killed in the streets, key reforms introduced to address human rights violations by the security forces have yet to deliver justice to the vast majority of victims and their families, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
The report, Window-dressing or pioneers of change? An assessment of Bahrain’s human rights oversight bodies, exposes serious shortcomings in two UK-supported institutions that have been repeatedly trumpeted by the Bahraini and British authorities as evidence of the country’s human rights progress.
“There is no denying that the Bahraini government has taken a step in the right direction by setting up institutions to investigate human rights violations and hold those suspected to be responsible accountable. Sadly these reforms remain woefully inadequate. Torture and other ill-treatment by security forces persist within a system of entrenched impunity marked by the lack of an independent judiciary,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s Beirut Regional Office.
“True change needs to be more than cosmetic. Bahrain’s authorities cannot continue to mislead the world with a mere veneer of reform, when accountability for violations has been scarce and critics and human rights defenders continue to be arbitrarily arrested and unfairly tried, convicted and imprisoned, banned from travelling abroad or stripped of their nationalities.”
The Bahraini government’s brutal crackdown during the 2011 uprising caused an international outcry. Upon the recommendation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, established by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the authorities responded by amending a number of laws and created several institutions to monitor, investigate and prosecute suspected perpetrators of human rights violations.
These included the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigations Unit within the Public Prosecution Office, which were established in 2012. Both receive training and capacity building from the UK, a staunch ally of Bahrain.
While these two institutions have achieved some measure of success, Amnesty International’s report highlights how up until now they have failed to significantly deter human rights violations.
“The UK government’s portrayal of the Ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit as model institutions is utterly disingenuous given the shortcomings highlighted in this report. Instead of telling half-truths to the world about Bahrain’s progress, the UK and other international allies must stop prioritizing defence and security co-operation over human rights,” said Lynn Maalouf.
The Ombudsman’s office has generally been effective in referring complaints of torture and other serious human rights violations for investigation by the Special Investigations Unit. However, in some cases it failed to take prompt action to protect detainees from torture and other ill-treatment, or to effectively investigate their allegations or to ensure their access to medical care.
For example, despite warnings from Amnesty International that Hussain Jawad, a Bahraini human rights defender, was at risk of torture upon his arrest on 16 February 2015, the Ombudsman’s office failed to carry out a prompt visit to check the conditions of his detention and ensure he was not at risk of torture. He later said he was blindfolded, beaten with his hands cuffed behind his back, and threatened with sexual abuse in order to extract a “confession”.
The Ombudsman’s office also delayed for two years an investigation into the torture allegations of Mohamed Ramadhan, an airport security guard who was sentenced to death after being convicted of being involved in a bomb attack, despite receiving notifications from the family and an international NGO.
While the Special Investigations Unit has made some progress on accountability and prosecuted 93 members of the security forces, only 15 low-ranking officials have been convicted. No senior officers or officials who oversaw the serious human rights violations during the 2011 uprising have ever faced prosecution.
The vast majority of alleged cases of torture and other ill-treatment, deaths in custody and unlawful killings have not even been referred to trial by the Special Investigations Unit. Out of nearly 200 recorded cases since the 2011 uprising recorded by Amnesty International, less than 45 were referred to trial.
One of those cases was that of Ali Hussein Neama, a 16-year-old boy who was shot dead by police in September 2012. Although photographic evidence and his death certificate indicate that he was shot in the back, the Special Investigations Unit concluded the officer who shot him had acted in self-defence and should not face prosecution, arguing that the boy and another child had thrown Molotov cocktails.
The Special Investigations Unit has also been slow to look into complaints. In one case it took investigators more than two years to take evidence from a prisoner of conscience alleging he was tortured, meaning forensic and other evidence that could have helped substantiate his allegations was lost.
Moreover, both the Ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit have failed to gain the public’s trust, partly as a result of a perceived lack of independence and impartiality. Both are viewed as too close to the Ministry of Interior and other governmental institutions and have failed to keep
families and victims adequately informed of progress in their investigations, fuelling distrust.
Nazeeha Saeed, a female journalist, described how she was beaten, kicked and humiliated, and subjected to electric shocks during her interrogation by security forces in May 2011. Three years later, the Special Investigations Unit took her back to the same room where she had been tortured, to identify her torturers, leaving her traumatized once again. Despite the fact that she identified five suspected perpetrators, no one was held accountable and the case was closed due to “lack of evidence”.
One emblematic case is that of Ali Isa al-Tajer, who says he was tortured for 25 days while in detention. He was failed by both the Ombudsman’s office, which did not ensure he was being held in a safe place and protected from torture, and by the Special Investigations Unit, which failed to promptly and thoroughly investigate his torture allegations, including by failing to conduct a prompt forensic medical examination. Both institutions also failed to respond promptly to warnings he was being tortured or adequately inform the family about their investigations.
“The Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior and the Special Investigations Unit together have the power to bring much needed change and improve the overall human rights situation in Bahrain. But in order to be truly effective, they need to operate promptly and transparently and demonstrate their independence. This should be part of a wider process to end impunity and repressive practices including ensuring an independent judiciary,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“Bahrain’s government took a crucial step by establishing these institutions and granting them a mandate that would enable them to bring about true change. They must now lead by example, showing they can overcome the country’s political and judicial obstacles to accountability. They must demonstrate the courage and political will to allow the Ombudsman and Special Investigations Unit to become robust and powerful institutions that are able to gain the public’s trust and act as effective deterrents to human rights violations.”
The report is based on more than 90 interviews conducted since 2013 with victims of human rights violations, their families and lawyers, as well as human rights defenders, in addition to information obtained through correspondence with the Bahraini government and relevant local institutions. It also draws on the findings of Amnesty International’s continuous research and monitoring of human rights developments in Bahrain.