Patterns of Torture in Bahrain: Perpetrators must Face Justice



 I. Executive Summary

This report provides a comprehensive overview of the specific ways and means by which torture is perpetrated in Bahrain, with a particular focus on the period since the 2011 popular movement and the violent crackdown that followed. The report documents the widespread use of forms of torture including blindfolding and handcuffing, forced standing, sleep deprivation, severe beatings, the use of electro-shock devices and cigarette burns, beating soles of feet, verbal abuse and threats of rape, sexual abuse and rape, hanging, solitary confinement, exposure to extreme temperatures and other humiliating and degrading techniques. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has examined how these patterns of torture have become an intrinsic part of the Bahraini justice system, where torture is used to extract forced confessions forvague and spurious charges. These confessions are then routinely used as admissible, incriminating evidence in trials marred by gross violations of due process and fair trial rights.

Any discussion on the systematic use of torture in Bahrain would be incomplete without also identifying and critiquing the national and international systems that facilitate the use of torture and perpetuate a culture of impunity for perpetrators. Domestic mechanisms such as the Ombudsman of the Ministry of the Interior and the Special Investigations Unit have failed to independently investigate allegations of torture and ensure redress and reparations for victims. In light of the lack of effective domestic mechanisms for ensuring accountability and redress, the report considers the potential of legal avenues such as universal jurisdiction in tackling the longstanding culture of impunity that allows perpetrators of torture in Bahrain to escape punishment.

GCHR’s research also sheds a light on the failings and, in certain circumstances, the complicity of the international community in facilitating the use of torture to silence dissenting voices including those of human rights defenders, political activists, online activists, journalists, lawyers and religious leaders. In particular, the report highlights the key role of the United Kingdom (from 1880–1971, Bahrain was a British colonial protectorate) in continuing to supply arms, spyware and military training to Bahrain. We examine the legality of this support in light of international human rights and humanitarian law and the obligations of state parties to the Wassenaar Arrangement to restrict the export of technology or the provision of technical support that may be used to commit human rights violations.

II. Methodology

As human rights defenders, NGOs and the international community mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 popular movement, our collective attention naturally turns to reflecting on how the human rights situation in Bahrain has developed in the interim. This report is specifically focused on patterns of torture and demonstrates the centrality of torture in maintaining the authoritarian style of governance and its chilling effect on the exercise and protection of human rights in Bahrain. 

This analysis of the patterns of torture considers Bahrain’s legal obligations under domestic and international law, starting with the results and recommendations laid out in the Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), published in November 2011. It identifies the main patterns of torture in Bahrain based on a number of confidential witness statements provided to GCHR by survivors, as well as reports and urgent appeals on specific cases from human rights organisations including the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB).

The final section of the report considers how the culture of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of torture in Bahrain can be remedied both domestically and internationally.  It is hoped that this exploration of the potential legal avenues for ensuring accountability for the perpetration of torture in Bahrain will serve as a useful signpost for survivors, human rights organisations, lawyers and the international community in their collective work in ensuring that the perpetrators of these crimes inevitably face justice.

III. Introduction 

In January 2011, as mass demonstrations were occurring in Tunisia and Egypt, calls for similar protests demanding democratic, economic and social reform began circulating in Bahrain. Facebook and Twitter were the principal forums by which Bahrainis organised and coordinated their collective actions and over the space of a month, an online community emerged under the banner “Youth of the February 14th Revolution.” In early February 2011, the coalition issued a statement calling for demonstrations on 14-15 February to mark the tenth anniversary of the referendum on the National Action Charter and the ninth anniversary of the adoption of the 2001 Constitution. The aim of the demonstrations was to call for “change and radical reforms in the system of government and the management of Bahrain, the absence of which caused continuous unease in the relationship between the people and the regime.” It is estimated that out of a population of just over 1000,000 people, 100,000 Bahrainis participated in the February 2011 demonstrations, meaning that, per capita, Bahrain’s popular movement was the largest of the Arab Spring demonstrations.

However, this momentous democratic surge for reform was met with brutal repression by the Bahraini authorities. On 18 March 2011, the Government of Bahrain banned demonstrations and protests, and began a coordinated campaign of mass arrests, mistreatment and torture of prisoners. This violent crackdown in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 popular movement ushered in a period of increasingly authoritarian rule in a de-facto police state, which continues to the present day. 

Following the February 2011 popular movement, King Hamad Isa Al-Khalifa, established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), in cooperation with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The BICI was composed of independent international experts whose task was to investigate and report on the events that took place in Bahrain from February 2011. In November 2011, the BICI reported its conclusions, which included findings that the heavy-handed use of lethal force by the Public Security Forces resulted in the death of many civilians and that detainees were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological ill-treatment whilst in custody. Importantly, for GCHR’s purposes, the report concluded that the use of torture and ill-treatment was “systematic”. Furthermore, the BICIconcluded that there was a lack of accountability of officials within Bahrain’s security system that facilitated a culture of impunity.

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