Friday, November 23, 2012

Bahrain: Promises Unkept, Rights Still Violated

Source: Human Rights Watch

Head of Independent Commission: Implementation ‘Inadequate’

(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities have failed to carry out the key recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which submitted its recommendations on accountability and other human rights issues a year ago. The commission concluded that security forces and other government authorities had committed serious and systematic human rights violations in connection with the government’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in 2011.

“Bahrain deservedly got a lot of credit for appointing an independent body to assess the government’s violations, but a year later, authorities have still not carried out the key recommendations,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “In fact, in many ways Bahrain’s human rights situation has only deteriorated since the king accepted the commission’s findings and recommendations.”

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed the BICI in July 2011 to investigate the government’s response to the demonstrations in February and March 2011. The commission concluded that the abuses by security forces – including torture and widespread arbitrary arrests – in the wake of the government suppression of the demonstrations “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure” of the security forces. It called on the government to address allegations of torture by security forces, “including those in the chain of command, military and civilian.”

King Hamadaccepted the commission’s findings and recommendations on November 23, 2011.

Bahraini authorities have released some people who were wrongly detained in connection with and following the protests, reinstated many dismissed workers and students, and prosecuted a few, typically low-ranking, security personnel. But leading opposition activists who were sentenced to long prison terms, including life terms, after they called for political change remain behind bars, as do many others whose alleged crimes involved mostly peaceful street protests.

The politicized arrests and prosecutions have continued. In August 2012, a Bahraini court sentenced Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights defender, to three years in prison based solely on his participation in protests that authorities had not authorized. In November, four Bahrainis were sentenced to prison for “tweets” that authorities alleged had insulted the king, even though King Hamad had publicly stated that he did not want anyone charged with crimes involving alleged insults to him.

By contrast, there have been no prosecutions of high-level officials in connection with the policies that led to widespread torture and unlawful killings. Courts have upheld convictions based on coerced confessions.

The head of the independent commission, the Egyptian-American jurist M. Cherif Bassiouni, told Human Rights Watch that the government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations has been inadequate.

“A number of recommendations on accountability were either not implemented or implemented only half-heartedly,” Bassiouni said. “The public prosecution has yet to investigate over 300 cases of alleged torture, some involving deaths in custody, and there has been no investigation, let alone prosecution, for command responsibility, even at the immediate supervisory level, of people killed in custody as a result of torture.”

The public prosecution has announced investigations into allegations of wrongdoing involving over 150 cases involving government personnel and charges against 56, including some 122 cases referred by the Interior Ministry, according to the official Information Affairs Authority. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, four have been convicted of an offense and at least three acquitted. The most severe sentence was seven years for a police lieutenant convicted of killing Hani Abd al-Aziz Jumaa with shotgun blasts fired at close range. In another case a policeman convicted in the shotgun shooting of an anti-government protester was sentenced to five years in prison, reduced on appeal to three years.

“You can’t say that justice has been done when calling for Bahrain to be a republic gets you a life sentence and the officer who repeatedly fired on an unarmed man at close range only gets seven years,” Bassiouni said.

Following the release of the report, the king established the National Commission to monitor the government’s implementation of the recommendations. The National Commission ended its work on March 20, and concluded that implementation was “comprehensive and far reaching” and “touched all aspects of Bahraini life.”

King Hamad’s decision to establish the independent commission was “courageous and far reaching,” Bassiouni said, but the conviction of Rajab, for example, illustrated “a pattern of continued prosecution of individuals solely for exercising rights protected by international human rights law, something King Hamad promised to bring to an end.”

Regarding many cases in which Bahrain’s highest court affirmed convictions despite credible allegations of torture, Bassiouni said that the rulings were “legally unsound,” citing one case in which the court declared the defendant’s confession admissible because it was taken several days after the torture occurred.

“I cannot think of a more egregious and specious legal opinion – admitting that the torture occurred but ruling the confession admissible and allowing the conviction to stand,” he said. “This constitutes a violation of the Convention Against Torture, to which Bahrain is a party.”

In line with the BICI recommendations, King Hamad stripped the National Security Agency of its powers to arrest and detain, and established a Special Investigation Unit in the Public Prosecution Office to look into allegations of unlawful deaths and torture. Bassiouni told Human Rights Watch that the seven-person unit is not working full-time on these cases, and has not conducted independent investigations. “The special unit does not have investigators or forensic experts on its staff,” he said. “This is a capacity problem that can and should be corrected.”

The government said that the Interior Ministry had developed a code of conduct for security forces and initiated training for security forces “to embed respect for human rights and due process.” During 2012, violence on the part of some protesters as well as police has increased, leading to the deaths and serious injuries of security personnel as well as protesters and bystanders.

“Despite the reform efforts the Interior Ministry says it has taken, there’s been a continuing pattern of the use of excessive force by security forces in response to peaceful as well as violent protests, and wanton beatings of young men accused of participating in illegal demonstrations,” Stork said. “It’s hard to see evidence of police reform when we look at how the security forces have actually been behaving.”

Despite official claims to the contrary, Bahrain continues to restrict access to the country for Human Rights Watch and other international rights monitors as well as journalists who have written critically about human rights conditions in the country.