(New York) – Bahraini authorities should quickly address the systematic and egregious rights violations documented by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. As a first step, the government should immediately release hundreds of people wrongfully detained or convicted following unfair trials. And it should investigate high-level officials responsible for serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.
Authorities should void all verdicts issued by the special military courts and drop all charges brought solely because people exercised their right to freely express political opinions and assemble peacefully. Authorities should only try civilians for legitimate criminal offenses, before a civilian court meeting international fair trial standards. These standards include the right of defendants to examine the evidence and witnesses against them, and the exclusion of all evidence obtained by torture or ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
“The independent commission’s report gives Bahraini authorities an opportunity to remedy some of their gross abuses by releasing all persons convicted or held for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial for Bahrain to send a strong message that there will be no impunity for the human rights crimes documented by the Bassiouni commission.”
The commission, headed by the Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni, found a pattern of serious human rights violations that included the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, denial of fair trial guarantees, and a severe lack of accountability for serious rights abuses, creating a “culture of impunity,” particularly within the ranks of the security forces.
Prisoners who should be freed because they were convicted solely of speech-related offenses include Ibrahim Sharif, leader of the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad); the human rights and political opposition activist Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja; Abdul Wahhab Hussein, a leader of the opposition group al-Wafa; Abdul Jalil al-Singace, from the opposition Haq movement; and several other leading activists whom the special military courts sentenced to prison terms ranging from five years to life, including Sheikh Mohammad Ali al-Mahfoodh, leader of the Islamic Action Society (Amal).
Several of those convicted by the special military courts, including the blogger Ali Abdulemam and the rights activist Abdul-Ghani al-Khanjar, were tried in absentia and remain in hiding.
Human Rights Watch called on authorities to investigate officials in the Interior Ministry, the National Security Agency, and the Bahrain Defense Forces who ordered or condoned arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and torture, regardless of their position or rank. Officials responsible for such serious violations should be dismissed and, where warranted, prosecuted before a court meeting international fair trial standards.
The commission concluded that arbitrary arrests and detentions – in many cases pre-dawn raids conducted by armed and masked security and military forces – showed the “existence of an operational plan” that was “designed to inspire terror” among those targeted for arrest. The arrests and detentions “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure” of the security forces, and that failure to investigate rights abuses could implicate not only low-level personnel but also higher level officials, the report said.
Of particular concern were the findings regarding torture and ill-treatment of detainees either to extract confessions or to mete out punishment. The report noted a “culture of impunity” and systematic violations of human rights by officials working for Bahrain’s security and military branches.
Human Rights Watch called on the government of Bahrain to carry out immediately the following critical confidence-building measures focusing on the status of detainees:
Quash all verdicts issued by special military courts against civilians and free all detainees convicted in these courts for the exercise of human rights (i.e. freedom of expression and peaceful assembly);
Exclude all evidence against detainees not made available to the defendant and his lawyer and that the defendant could not challenge, or was obtained under duress following torture or ill-treatment, and terminate any cases where remaining evidence is not sufficient for prosecution;
Release provisionally all defendants charged with recognizable crimes pending retrial by courts meeting international fair trial standards unless authorities can justify their pretrial detention before an independent court;
Remove high-level officials in government agencies involved in systematic abuses and rights violations, including the Bahrain Defense Force, the National Security Agency, the Interior Ministry, and the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs; and
Open independent, speedy, and thorough criminal investigations into those responsible for torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, and other human rights crimes.
Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to invite the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council to visit Bahrain and conduct inquiries, allow the International Committee of the Red Cross unrestricted access to detention facilities, and allow international human rights organizations access to the country.
The United States and other countries should continue to withhold the sale or provision of military and security items and services to Bahrain until authorities take meaningful steps toward accountability for serious human rights violations and free everyone imprisoned for their peaceful exercise of basic human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
On November 29, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a decree establishing a National Commission to advise on implementation of the Bassiouni commission’s recommendations. Another decree limits the arrest and detention powers of the National Security Agency.
“The release of the independent commission’s report was an important step,” Stork said. “What’s needed now are clear initiatives from the government showing that it is committed to lasting human rights reform.”