In Bahrain, the two-faced nature of impunity: oppressors rewarded, activists suffer

I originally wrote this report for IFEX and it was published on February 13th, 2019. I’m republishing it here for archival purposes. .

I also conducted an associated interview with Husain Abdulla from ADHRB which you can find here. .

“In this piece IFEX examines how the Bahraini government has been rewarding officials with promotions, regardless of, or perhaps related to, serious human rights violations they are accused of. At the same time, it has continued relentlessly abusing human rights defenders, dissidents and journalists.”

On 19 June 2011, as the crackdown on Bahraini protesters was intensifying in brutality, the Bahraini king’s son, Nasser bin Hamad – known as the ‘torture prince’ by dissidents – was promoted to Commander of Bahrain’s Royal Guard. IFEX member Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) reports that Bin Hamad “personally led a reprisal campaign and took part in torture of activists”. In May 2014, Bin Hamad had been identified as the defendant in a UK case involving allegations of torture of a Bahraini in 2011.

Bin Hamad’s promotion is symptomatic of impunity promoted by the Bahraini government; a phenomenon that has intensified since the Bahraini revolution began in 2011. Allegations of human rights abuses, including torture or even extrajudicial killings, do not translate into accountability for the perpetrators. Instead, the government allows perperators to get away with crimes, and even rewards such behavior with promotions, as the case of Bin Hamad shows.

ADHRB have documented the promotion of 12 senior commanders implicated in such violations across the top eight most abusive units. These include the current commander of the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Science (GDCIFS), Director-General Brigadier Abdulaziz Mayoof al-Rumaihi, who was appointed by the king in July 2016 despite being implicated in human rights violations since 2010 and has since presided over more than 60 human rights abuses linked to the GDCIFS, including the 2017 extrajudicial killing of Abdullah al-Ajooz.

They also include Mubarak bin Huwail. He was accused of torturing six medics but was acquitted in July 2013. According to ADHRB, he was seen meeting Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s prime minister since 1970 and the king’s uncle, shortly thereafter, who reportedly thanked him for his “good work” and told him that “the laws don’t apply to you”. Soon after, he was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed head of the entire Southern Governorate Police Force.

Another example is Lieutenant Colonel Adnan Bahar, who has been linked to torture since 2005 by IFEX member the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture reported in 2008 that Bahar, then a sergeant, oversaw cases of torture and sexual assault. Among the victims was Naji Fateel, leader of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. ADHRB reports that Fateel was tortured in 2008, and then again in 2012 and 2013 before being sentenced to 15 years in Jau Prison.

To make matters worse, Bahar became acting supervisor of Jau prison in January 2018, meaning he now also oversees the treatment of Fateel. Just recently, on 12 November 2018, Fateel was put in solitary confinement “immediately after he leaked an audio recording in which he appealed to human rights organisations to intervene urgently”, according to IFEX member the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR). At the time of writing, Fateel has spent over 60 days on hunger strike protesting his condition.

The two-faced nature of impunity in Bahrain

The ongoing case of Bahar and Fateel is a perfect illustration of the two-faced nature of impunity in Bahrain. On the one hand, human rights defenders and journalists are being oppressed. And on the other, their abusers are being rewarded for their actions.

The case of Nazeeha Saeed, the long-time Bahrain correspondent for France24 (since 2009) and Radio Monte Carlo (since 2004), is another face of impunity in the country. Speaking to IFEX, Saeed recounted how she was held and tortured in a police station on 22 May 2011 “because I covered pro-democracy demonstrations in a neutral and independent way, that the authorities didn’t like.” Saeed was “humiliated, blindfolded, beaten”. She was slapped, punched and kicked by four policewomen, one of whom took her shoe and forced it into Saeed’s mouth, telling her: “You are worth less than this shoe”. They even forced her to bray like a donkey and walk like an animal.

She reported her experience to the interior minister to no avail. Seven months later, in January 2012, she filed a case against her torturers. Although a trial was launched a month later, “only one of the officers was to be prosecuted although I was accusing 5 officers and policewomen”. It lasted for months until, finally, the verdict came in October of that year. Despite her defense team providing “strong evidence, medical reports and even an eyewitness”, the accused was acquitted. An appeal court upheld the acquittal. According to Saeed, her case was the first case of torture to have even been ‘investigated’ at all, meaning that “the torturers are free to do it again.”

Those at risk include anyone who draws attention to or works to defends the rights of others. Our colleague Nabeel Rajab, co-founder of our members BCHR and GCHR, is currently serving an unjust 5-year prison sentence for social media posts documenting allegations of torture in Bahrain’s prisons and human rights violations in the war in Yemen. BCHR’s Nedal Al-Salman told us that:

“In Bahrain, serious human rights have been ongoing, in a culture of impunity. It has been 8 years since the start of demands , 8 years of repression of human rights with no effective pressure from the international community. BCHR call for prompt, independent and impartial investigations to ensure accountability for all victims.”

Torturers in Bahrain know that they won’t face consequences. In July of 2011, the government established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), following international pressure in response to its brutal crackdown of protesters. The aim was manifestly to “investigate government abuses and recommend legal and policy changes to prevent a recurrence of such events”. The BICI, a team of international jurists and legal scholars, conducted over 9,000 interviews. Unsurprisingly, the BICI concluded that: “the lack of accountability of officials within the security system in Bahrain has led to a culture of impunity, whereby security officials have few incentives to avoid mistreatment of prisoners or to take action to prevent mistreatment by other officials.”

Despite the apparent willingness by the Bahraini government to listen to an independent commission of inquiry, its actions since 2011 suggest the contrary. Indeed, in a 2015 report entitled Shattering the Façade, BCHR, ADHRB and the Bahrain Center for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) concluded that of the 26 recommendations made by the BICI, the Bahraini government had only fully implemented two of them, with the remaining 24 either partially implemented or not implemented at all.

To make matters worse, the government re-empowered the National Safety Courts (NSCs) in 2017, after having rescinded their power in 2011 – following one of BICI’s recommendations. The 2017 version of the NSCs was even worse than a return to the status quo, as, unlike in 2011, the NSCs would no longer have temporal restrictions.

What can be done? Magnitsky and more…

Husain Abdulla, founder and executive director of ADHRB, told IFEX that given the deeply-entrenched culture of impunity in Bahrain and the extreme danger to dissenting voices, many NGOs are seeking to support the work of activists outside the country as well as continuing to highlight the ongoing struggles of those within. In addition, they are leveraging international mechanisms to pressure the Bahraini regime into complying with its human rights obligations.

To that end, ADHRB along with 11 other NGOs met with representatives from the US Departments of State and Treasury and the UK government in August 2018 to “discuss sanctions recommendations under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act”.

Named after Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky who was murdered in a Moscow prison in 2009, the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 is an expansion of the 2012 Magnitsky Act – which applied only to Russian individuals and entities – and is described by ADHRB as “the most comprehensive human rights and anti-corruption sanctions tool in U.S. history”. In effect, to quote Elisabeth Witchel, Magnitsky Laws, “offer some correction to a paradoxical global injustice in which actors from repressive countries can operate with impunity at home and also benefit from their wealth abroad, even in countries that see themselves as champions of rule of law and human rights”.

This is in addition to leveraging UN mechanisms effectively. Since October 2013, AHDRB has been able to raise individual cases to the UN Special Procedures, which report to the UN Human Rights Council. Among the many individuals on whose behalf ADHRB sent complaints to Special Procedures are Nabeel Rajab, Sheikh Ali Salman, Dr. AbdulJalil AlSingace, Ebtesam Al-Saegh, Ali AlArab, Ahmed Fardan as well as Jau prisoners who reported water cuts over the summer, multiple individuals tortured, and assault on the cultural rights of all Bahrainis following the government’s destruction of the Pearl Roundabout in 2011.

As a result, multiple UN Special Rapporteurs have highlighted these cases, including, but not limited to, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences.

In confronting these two faces of the climate of impunity in Bahrain, advocates are forced to be resilient, maintaining their pressure with very little in the way of immediate, positive results. At least, as ADHRB notes, they have “sometimes resulted in better conditions of their detention.”