Whatever Happened to Bahrain’s Torture Reforms?

Despite promises of change, abuses by police and security services remain commonplace in the kingdom.

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Asma Darwish finally had a chance to visit her jailed husband two weeks after his sudden arrest by police in the town of Sitrah, Bahrain, on Feb. 16. The arrest — a surprise nighttime raid involving masked plainclothes figures, armored vehicles and a large contingent of gun-toting police — had been traumatic enough. But what Darwish’s husband, Hussain Jawad, told her later was even more disturbing.

Normally a calm and robust man, the 27-year-old cried as he recalled the abuses he suffered at the hands of Bahraini authorities. The men brought him to the Criminal Investigations Directorate building in the capital, Manama — and then started beating him. “They stripped him absolutely naked and they started filming, taking photos,” Darwish said. Jawad told his wife that during daily interrogations, which lasted up to 12 hours, he endured near-constant violence, occasionally punctuated by sexual humiliation and threats to “to rape him using a pipe inserted into his anus,” she said.

Thereafter, he was kept in a freezing cell where guards would routinely beat him and from which he could hear the screams of other detainees, tortured with electric shocks. His interrogators told him that if he did not confess to a series of offences against the state, he would suffer the same treatment. Subsequently he did just that. He is now being held in Dry Dock detention center in Manama, awaiting trial.

Jawad’s allegations were only too familiar to his wife: as a member of the European-Bahraini Organization for Human Rights (EBOHR), a group her husband chairs, she knew that victims of the Gulf state’s repressive security apparatus had long complained of such abuses while being held in custody.

The long-standing torture problem in the kingdom of Bahrain, an island nation of roughly 1.3 million people — and an important U.S. ally — is no secret. A 2010 Human Rights Watch report documented systematic patterns of abuse from the previous decade — abuses revived a year later during a widely condemned crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring. Despite this, unrest has persisted, with demonstrators calling for greater political rights and an end to minority Sunni rule. The report concluded that “since the end of 2007, officials have repeatedly resorted to torture for the apparent purpose of securing confessions from security suspects.”

In the aftermath of the 2011 protests, which ally Saudi Arabia helped crush, allegations of the use of torture, sexual abuse and forced confessions were again commonplace. Leading figures such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights at the time, were sentenced by a military court to life imprisonment on the basis of “evidence that was widely accepted as having been secured under torture,” the BBC reported. Like Jawad, he had also been arrested in a nighttime raid.

Such abusive practices have been credibly alleged on numerous occasions since. In 2013, Tagi al-Maidan, an American citizen, was sentenced to a decade in prison for attempted murder, a conviction backed by a forced confession, according to a report by a group of international experts mandated by the U.N. to investigate unjustified deprivations of freedom. In the same year, human rights watchdog Amnesty International documented the use of torture against children, some of whom were “threatened with rape in order to extract forced confessions.” Around the same time, Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture was refused entry to the country by the Bahraini government. To date, he remains frozen out.

Following the events of 2011, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa pledged on national television that there would be an independent investigation into abuses allegedly committed by his security forces. A panel of experts was convened by the sovereign to form the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which subsequently confirmed multiple acts of extreme violence by the state, including torturing to death detainees in custody; it also recorded dozens of allegations relating to the practice of extracting false confessions from protesters.

The commission’s report contained a series of recommendations that the government publicly agreed to implement, a move that raised hopes of substantial judicial and security reform. However, while some measures to improve accountability within the criminal justice system have been implemented, most of the report’s suggestions remain ignored. The problem, according to Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan, is that the Kingdom’s courts are “an integral part of a repressive order.” In 2013, two policemen convicted of torturing protesters to death had their jail terms cut from seven to three years. (In the photo, Bahraini women mourn during the funeral of 20-year-old prisoner Fadel Abbas Musalem on Jan. 26, 2014. The man is said to have died after being tortured in detention.)

Salman Al-Jalahma, Washington-based media attaché for the Bahraini government, emphasized via email earlier this month that the government had begun to move towards an “institutional security landscape” by engineering “a genuine shift from public order policing to a human rights-based approach.” On Jawad’s allegations of torture, Al-Jalahma replied: “there is zero tolerance for mistreatment of any kind within the Ministry of Interior,” adding “no one is targeted for disagreeing with the Government.”

Recent events indicate otherwise. Jawad’s sudden arrest is the latest in a series of moves against political activists by Bahraini authorities in recent months. Among those apparently targeted for their activism include well-known rights advocate Nabeel Rajab, sentenced to six months in prison for a tweet deemed to have “denigrated government institutions,” a ruling he has challenged in the Criminal Court of Appeal, which recently postponed its verdict on his case. This followed the sentencing of prominent dissident Zainab Al-Khawaja to three years in prison for tearing up a photograph of the king, and, most dramatically, the detention in December of the leader of Bahrain’s political opposition, Ali Salman, on charges of “promoting the overthrow and change of the political regime by force” and inciting civil disobedience through his public statements. In February, a court denied Salman bail, and he remains in the custody of the regime; Al-Khawaja was granted bail in December, but could be re-arrested at any time.

And recently, Bahraini authorities unilaterally revoked the citizenship of at least 72 people associated with the protest movement, many of whom now live abroad, ensuring that their exclusion from political life in the country remains permanent. “The ruler of Bahrain revoked my citizenship today without a court, any charges or clear evidence of why,” Ali Abdulemam, a U.K.-based blogger and activist, complained on Twitter at the time. U.N.-appointed human rights experts condemned the decision as “yet another attempt by the Government of Bahrain to clamp down on opponents.” McGeehan’s assessment of the motive for this series of arrests and other measures was similarly forthright. “I think they’re trying to put everyone who is a threat away for as long as possible,” he said.

Jawad is set to face the court on April 7. A press release by Bahraini authorities which appeared in local newspapers last week announced that he is charged with receiving funds from abroad and using them to finance anti-government groups. The statement says Jawad and another defendant “have admitted” their guilt, eliding his claims he had done so under torture.

Meanwhile, while pessimistic about his chances of fair treatment at the hands of the regime, his wife still clings to hope. “I pray for the best and expect the worst,” she said, adding “I do not trust the government. Hope is my only survival tool; I am sure one day my husband will come back home. How soon? I do not know. I would like to see pressure from the international community: America and the U.K. can make a big difference for him.”

On this front, no big push is likely. Bahrain is a major U.S. ally, housing the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and purchasing large amounts of military hardware. It was granted “major non-NATO ally” status by the Bush administration in 2002, joining a select group of countries which includes Israel, Japan, and Australia. And, though the United States has urged Bahrain to implement promised reforms, unrest in the Gulf all but ensures that security, and not human rights, will continue to dominate the relationship.

So all Darwish can do now is continue to wait for her husband. “What I know,” she says, “is that I will prepare the house for his return every day.”


Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and researcher, specializing in human rights. He was researcher and investigative producer of the Al Jazeera documentary “The Genocide Agenda.”