In November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released a 500-page report into human rights abuses committed during demonstrations in the spring. Daniella Peled talks to Mariwan Hama-Saeed of Human Rights Watch about the commission's hard-hitting account, and what it means for Bahrain.
How credible is the report, and how far does it chime in with Human Rights Watch’s own research?
Our first impression of the report is that, in terms of the issues covered by Human Rights Watch and other rights organisations – including arbitrary arrest, torture and impunity – the abuses have been quite well documented by the commission.
There is some pretty strong language used in the concluding section of the report, which is a good sign. The conclusion is quite critical of the authorities, especially regarding torture and impunity. There are some very strong comments on government practices after the popular pro-democracy demonstrations started in February this year and in the subsequent crackdown.
To what extent does the report mark a turning point for Bahrain?
This report has confirmed all the human rights violations that were documented by human rights organisations. For a long time, human rights organisations have talked about these issues, but the Bahraini authorities have either rejected their findings or looked the other way. This report will put the ball in the authority’s court.
The report talks about the systematic practice of arbitrary arrest by the authorities. It puts the figures of those detained since February much higher than Human Rights Watch had estimated. We believed some 1,600 had been arrested; the report puts the figure at about 3,000.
In these terms, it marks a very dramatic departure.
The report also talks about how the security forces arrested people without warrants and held them for weeks in prison, to all intents and purposes incommunicado. Many people were tortured and ill-treatment has been widespread.
Prisoners have been forced to confess to their alleged crimes and hundreds have been convicted in unfair trials. The report records that some 560 people complained of mistreatment and torture in prison – I am sure many people didn’t even report what they experienced – which indicates a very high percentage of mistreatment among detainees.
The report confirms all the types of torture reported by human rights organisations over the past several months. These include beatings, electric shocks, sleep deprivation for days on end, the threat of rape, exposure to extreme temperatures, sectarian insults, and being forced to stand for prolonged periods, which in one case documented by Human Rights Watch, lasted for almost 12 days.
The question of impunity forms the strongest part of the report, which records the lack of accountability of government and security officials. This “culture of impunity”, as they call it, means there is no incentive to avoid mistreatment. The commission says that it collected evidence indicating that the judiciary and prosecutors turned a blind eye to torture cases. Human rights organisations have documented numerous cases of unfair trials where people were sentenced on the basis of confessions extracted under duress.
What are the main issues of concern that remain?
The most immediate concern is the ongoing violation of human rights in Bahrain. Demonstrations are still happening and people are being arrested and subjected to ill-treatment. Since February, 44 deaths have been documented, mainly of civilians.
With regard to this report, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry was set up by the king, and I am happy to say that it reaffirms reports from human rights organisations around the world. In that sense, this report is a good thing.
But now it’s up to the government. The commission made some recommendations and the government promised action.
Increasing the accountability of officials should be a priority. Practical steps are needed. When it comes to prisoner releases, I wish the report had made stronger recommendations. It talks about reviewing or reducing sentences, which is strange because at one point it also talks about coerced confessions and unfair trials, so what it should be asking for is wide-ranging releases and apologies. There should also be investigations into the torture allegations.
What needs to be done next?
There is a long road ahead of us – the authorities say they are going to form working groups and commissions to follow up on the report, and it’s our job as human rights organisations to hold them to that. Let’s see how they change in the coming months and years.
As a priority, a system of accountability needs to be put in place. There should be a clear, transparent and public mechanism for holding anyone accused of violating civil rights to account. Most of the violence has definitely been committed by the authorities, and human rights organisations have documented hundreds of cases since demonstrations began in February.
The United States government is also placed in a difficult position. Bahrain is an ally and is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. There were plans earlier this year to sell arms to the Bahraini government totalling some 53 million dollars, but that was put on hold after the demonstrations, until the commission reported back.
Now it is clear that the government violated a lot of basic rights, which puts the US government in an awkward position when it comes to justifying selling arms to Bahrain.
Mariwan Hama-Saeed is an Arthur Koenig Fellow at Human Rights Watch in New York.