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Bahrain Opinion: Letting Torturers Go Free? (Owen Jones)

Ali Mushaimaa, killed 14 Feb 2011Marc Owen Jones writes on his blog:

Torture has been a systemic problem in Bahrain since at least 1975. Since that time, however, not one state security employee or government official has ever been convicted of torture. On the other hand, it took the Lower National Safety Court just two months to convict nine civilians of "torturing" a policeman. 

Some hoped that after the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report,  state officials who were complicit in torture against civilians would be brought to justice. This has failed to happen. Furthermore, the highest rank of those even put before the courts appears to be a lieutenant, and that case doesn’t even relate to "torture". Naturally this has done nothing to appease those in Bahrain who want justice, as many believe that government officials are either directly responsible for issuing the torture order, or at least complicit through negligence.

In many cases, it is not even clear how many policeman are being tried and what charges are being leveled against them. On Friday, a pro-regime newspaper reported that 50 policeman were being prosecuted for "mistreatment of protesters during last year’s unrest". It is unclear whether these 50 policeman are the same 48 policeman who were questioned in relation to 107 cases of death and ‘alleged’ torture. It also appears that there has been no further news (BICI, 905) on the policemen who were taken into custody following the deaths of Fadhel Salman Matrook and Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima back in February 2011.

Another ongoing trial is that of the female police officer who is being prosecuted for abusing France 24 journalist Naziha Saeed. Considering the fact that at least four officers were reported to have abused Naziha, it is outrageous that only one is standing trial. Other notable cases include the trial of 3 policeman accused of "causing the death" of three Bahraini civilians by using ‘pellet-guns’. (Note how the pro-regime paper refrains from using terms like "murder" or even "shotgun", the former term being used liberally when it comes to the trials of civilians. Indeed, on Thursday, 28 civilians were charged with"‘attempted murder" for throwing molotov cocktails. Naturally this rhetoric is all part of a strategy that seeks to paint activists as mindless mobs whilst legitimizing police transgressions by marginalizing their severity or portraying them as isolated, non-systemic incidents.)

One of the longest running cases against security officials involves the trial of five guards who have been implicated in the torture of Zakariya al-Asheri and Ali Isa Saqer, the latter of whom had his confession regarding his involvement in the killing of policeman aired on state TV,  two weeks after he had died in custody. Despite the fact that the guards were arrested in May last year, their trial only started in January 2012, showing nothing of the remarkable efficiency with which dozens of civilians face ‘justice’. Furthermore, despite the fact the commission found that Ali Isa Saqer had died of torture (BICI 996), 2 of those accused are only facing charges of manslaughter, whilst the other two charges of "failing to report a crime" (BICI, 995). I’m not quite sure who they could have reported the crime to, maybe the very superiors who were all so clearly ignorant of the widespread abuses occuring under their jurisdiciton? Maybe, despite ALL the media coverage regarding torture, abuses could have been rectified in all Bahraini prisons had those three guards only just reported the torture to their superiors. Bloody rascals!

So, in addition to the vague, apathetic, selective and often unfair application of justice against the lower ranks, little seems to have changed in the way of police brutality and torture. In fact, the King and the Minister of the Interior recently told Cherif Bassiouni that torture had not occurred in Bahrain since last July, and this was apparently enough to reassure the internationally renowned law professor. Why Bassiouni believes the head of the body (Ministry of the Interior) responsible for carrying out much of the abuse is a mystery. Bassiouni is also clearly unaware of the case of Yousif Muwali, who is believed to have been tortured before his death in January. Indeed, Bassiouni has consistently managed to upset political activists in Bahrain, not least after his letter to Zayed al Zayani, which congratulated Bahrain on receiving the Formula One – an event many believe should not occur in light of the slow pace of reforms and justice.

With regards to police brutality, a number of new videos have surfaced that show police beating up unarmed and cooperative civilians, often in full view of many of their colleagues (123). There’s also continuing evidence of police misusing tear gasthrowing molotov cocktails and stones. Despite this, there is much talk of police reform and new codes of conduct, which will supposedly

‘…mark the start of a new era and a correct path to building bridges of confidence between the united Bahraini society and police, based on the rule of law, integrity, transparency, tolerance, and the breaking of psychological barriers between them.”

It would seem that "police reform" is just a rhetorical device used to exonerate state violence, and thus it is convenient to emphasize that the police are in a constant state of reform. As I’ve said before, there can be no police reform without political reform, as the current political order relies on violence to actually stay in power. It is hard to believe that given the extent of ongoing police transgressions, state officials can keep claiming ignorance or a lack of accountability. That torture has been occurring in Bahrain since 1975 would suggest it is  systemic, and thus accusations of ‘negligence’ are simply another euphemism that serve to detract from the real cause of state violence in Bahrain – an illegitimate and autocratic regime.

Another problem faced by the regime is that by putting policeman on trial, they run the risk of upsetting loyalist hardliners like Adel Flaifel who, along with British citizen Ian Henderson, has been accused of torturing Bahrainis in the 1990s. In fact, Adel Flaifel appears to be involved in the formation of a new society that seeks to defend the interests of policeman suspended over misconduct allegations during the unrest. The fact that some policemen might be guilty of serious crimes is apparently irrelevant, and instead their role as ‘heroes’ who ‘protect’ Bahrain should somehow allow them to act with impunity. On the other hand though, if many were just following orders, then it unfair that only they and not their superiors are being held accountable.

Irrespective of  guilt, there is clearly pressure on the regime to exert leniency on state security officers facing prosecution. The regime are therefore being forced to make even more concessions with regards to justice, using it instead as a tool to affect some semblance of political stability. It would seem that something similar is happening with regards to the trial of the medics, and on Thursday it was announced that 20 of them would face retrial, a week after 15 of them had had their cases thrown out. No doubt this move was designed for two reasons; to appease loyalists, and to bolster the government’s account of what happened at Salmaniya Medical Complex --0 a narrative crucial to the regime’s justification of last year’s crackdown.

Such maneuvering underlines the regime’s flagrant abuse of the country’s justice system.  Indeed it is criminal that the regime can continually preserve their longevity by engineering solutions that absolve them of any responsibility or accountability. They managed to do it with Royal Decree 56, which exonerated state security officials/officers from being held accountable for human rights abuses carried out prior to 2001 (in other words, a get out of jail free card for torturers).  Now the regime are successfully using the BICI report to project a veneer of legitimacy, one that hides the fact that the systemic abuses are not ones that can simply be blamed on rogue security agents, but rather attributed to the regime’s legitimacy deficit, which inevitably results in violent coercion.

The need for a political solution is therefore key to ending violence, and although the BICI report was not a political roadmap, the successful implementation of its recommendations would have provided a more fertile ground for reconciliation. With this in mind, it is interesting that the BICI report was not more forceful in laying a pathway for political reform. It could have done this by being stronger with regards to the plight faced by political prisoners such as Ebrahim Sharif. Indeed, the report did not state that the political prisoners should be released, but rather their cases"‘reviewed". Given the unusual discrepancies between the Arabic version of the BICI report and the English version, one must ask themselves if anyone intervened to change "drop charges" to "review case"’. Lord Avebury seems to think so, and he does mention that he is old friends with Nigel Rodley, who just happened to be a commisioner on  BICI team. I wonder if they know something we don’t.

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