2011-02-18 Cables: Human Rights Watch's Torture Allegations Threaten Bahrain Government's Credibility

ImageThe streets of Bahrain are becoming increasingly violent. Security forces are using live rounds on protesters. Just over a day ago, right before dawn security forces ambushed protesters camping peacefully in the Pearl Roundabout, an area they had turned into their “Tahrir Square.” Many were injured, a few were killed. And, the world is witnessing the brutal discriminatory practices often used by the regime against Shia citizens and activists who dare to criticize the regime or exercise freedom of expression.

For years, a monarchy headed by King Hamad bin Isa al- Khalifa has come under sharp criticism for its use of torture. Amnesty International published a report on February 11 titled, “Crackdown in Bahrain: Human Rights at the Crossroads.” And now, WikiLeaks has released several cables detailing the torture of political prisoners and other Bahrainis.

The cables shows Human Rights Watch (HRW) has the power to challenge Bahrain’s credibility internationally and domestically. One cable in particular from February 12, 2010, shows how the organization’s report asserting torture had been “’revived’ as a component of interrogations in Bahrain” upset Sunni columnists and MPs and led a Bahrain human rights NGO to question parts of the report.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report entitled "Torture Redux: the Revival of Physical Coercion during Interrogations in Bahrain," at a February 8 press conference in Manama. The report and accompanying press release -- both available at www.hrw.org -- assert that "since the end of 2007, officials have repeatedly resorted to torture" during questioning of detainees. The torture allegations are largely based on interviews HRW conducted with 20 former detainees in June 2009. Ten of these were arrested during and after riots in Jidhafs village in December 2007 (ref A); three were arrested in connection with disturbances near Karzakkan village in early 2008, during which a Pakistani policeman was killed (ref B); and seven were arrested as part of the National Day/Hujaira case (ref C). All 20 detainees were released following King Hamad's pardon in April 2009 (refs C and D).

The cable says, “Former detainees alleged that they had been suspended in painful positions, beaten on the soles of their feet, subjected to electrical shocks, and punched and slapped.” Joshua Colangelo-Bryan of the New York office Dorsey & Whitney LLP claimed “that this mistreatment was carried out in such a way as to minimize signs of physical abuse on the detainees' bodies” and “told media that government medical records indicated that some of those who provided testimony to HRW bore indications of torture.”

US diplomats draw attention to the fact that doctors’ annotations in the report indicate “some of the former detainees had bruises or joint irregularities that ‘could have’ been caused by suspending bodies off the ground.” It’s mentioned that the report suggests France and the UK might be “implicated in prohibited practices” because the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) have French and British advisors.

The report’s allegations are met with heavy criticism. Abdulla Al Derazi, head of the independent Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) “told reporters that BHRS had carried out its own investigation, and based on that, he believed that some of the officers implicated in the HRW report had nothing to do with the alleged torture.” The report was criticized for relying on a “narrow group of Bahraini activists who are leaders of, or closely affiliated with Shia radical groups that have a record of inaccurate claims.”

The report is also sharply criticized for an “over-reliance" on al-Haq accounts of torture:

Critics also contend that the tone and content of the report indicate sympathy for Shia radicals' points of view. For example, the report's account of the death of the police officer in the April 2008 Karzakan riots weakly refutes the notion that the rioters caused his death: "A plainclothes Pakistani officer with the NSA, Majod Asghar Ali, died, although apparently not as a result of being trapped in the burning vehicle, as authorities claimed." HRW's assertion that Majod Asghar Ali was an officer of the Bahrain National Security Agency (BNSA) also belies an over-reliance on Haq's politically tinged account of that event. Rajab, Al Singace, and other Haqis have claimed that the victim was employed by the BNSA. However, employment records produced during the trial made it clear that the dead man was an MOI officer.

At the press conference, deputy head of HRW’s Middle East North Africa (MENA) division Joe Stork suggests that the government is returning to practices of torture that had been used in the 1990s.

Stork asserted that the Government had reverted to practices it employed in the 1990s. He stressed that the overall rights situation had improved since that time, but insisted that the HRW report's allegations showed that torture is again being utilized during questioning of suspects. (Note: Bahrain experienced significant upheaval during the 1990s, during which time a number of Shia activists were exiled, imprisoned, and, in some cases, activists and NGOs allege, tortured. King Hamad's reforms, beginning in 1999, paved the way for integration of mainstream Shia parties, above all Wifaq, into legal politics, including participation in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and an end to the most serious civil disturbances. However, Shia radicals, such as the Haq and Wafa' movements, continue to denounce Shia who take part in elections. The radicals also inspire much of the low-intensity street violence that regularly afflicts some Shia villages, and has occasionally led to attacks on south Asians.

However credible the criticisms were, the report forced the foreign minister to agree to “look into” the allegations to see if torture took place and commit to referring “the perpetrators” to “appropriate authorities” if evidence of torture was found. It presented an existential crisis for Bahrain leading US diplomats to comment at the end of a cable filed over a week later, “Both the Foreign Minister (reftel) and senior officials at MOI appear to understand that the HRW report represents a significant challenge internationally and domestically.”

It led US embassy officials to urge the “GOB to study the report carefully and to respond in a manner that was credible to the USG and to the international community,” which clearly meant make it seem like your government takes the allegations of torture but don’t worry, we won’t be getting behind any push for prosecutions if torture did indeed occur.

US officials stress, “It would not suffice to merely claim, as some (Sunni) MPs had, that the HRW authors or their (Shia) associates in Bahrain had an anti-government agenda. The GOB, or even better an independent investigation, had to address the allegations forthrightly and transparently if the GOB hoped avoid damage to its international reputation.” And, officials are shown a video that shows the face of Naji Ali Hassan Fateel “carrying a rifle stolen from a burning police vehicle.” Fateel admitted to confessing to the crime but claimed to a judge that he was made to confess “under duress.”

Upon showing the video to US diplomats, Ministry of Interior Brigadier Tariq Bin Daineh exclaims, “Why would we need to torture him," exclaimed Bin Daineh, "We can see his face!"

This report was not the first time HRW called the government of Bahrain’s official story on its treatment of prisoners into question. A cable from January 2008 describes a local NGO in Bahrain visiting fifteen detainees held in connection with December street violence. The NGO, the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS), decides to try to visit the detainees after HRW reports “detainees had told their family members that they had been abused in custody and called for an independent investigation.” The NGO is eventually permitted by the Government of Bahrain (GOB) to interview the detainees.

In the immediate aftermath of the December riots (reftels), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the Al-Haq movement publicly accused the authorities of torturing some of those detained in connection with the unrest. The abuse allegedly included sleep deprivation and electric shock. The GOB has adamantly denied those allegations, pointing to medical tests conducted by a forensic doctor who publicly reported finding no evidence the detainees had suffered, since their detention, the mistreatment alleged. Human Rights Watch reported that one detainee told his family that he had been assaulted sexually, and on January 22 HRW called for an independent investigation into the allegations. On January 24, the GOB announced that it would permit the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS), a local human rights NGO, to interview the detainees.

3.(SBU) Poloff met with XXXXXXXXXXXX(please protect) on January 24. XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed that the GOB agreed to give XXXXXXXXXXXX private access to the detainees. He said he had also hoped to bring doctors, lawyers, and a psychiatrist along for the visits, but that the Public Prosecutor's office had balked. Instead, XXXXXXXXXXXX will be permitted to interview the detainees with no guards or other security officials present. XXXXXXXXXXXX will bring five trained social workers to interview the detainees. They will meet with four of the fifteen detainees over three sessions. They will meet with the first two detainees on January 27, one on January 31, and one on February 3. XXXXXXXXXXXX will visit the detainees at the Hamad Town prison, and plans to release its findings to the media.

4.(C) Comment: The Bahraini authorities recognize they need to deal with the torture allegations in a more transparent fashion. The arrangement with XXXXXXXXXXXX shows that the GOB is sensitive to criticism from international human rights watchdogs.

In response to the violent suppression of protests by security forces in Bahrain, HRW has called for “King Hamad, as commander of the Bahraini Defence Forces (BDF)” to “immediately order an end to attacks on peaceful protesters.” It has said the United States, the United Kingdom, and other international donors should immediately suspend military assistance to Bahrain.”

UNHRC chairman Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi praised the government of Bahrain in October 2010 for making strides in human rights. The chairman “hailed the Government's efforts to overcome all challenges facing human rights, human habitat, justice, Education and the economy, including the civic and political inalienable rights. The UN officials also lauded the viability and buoyancy of Bahrain civil society and the strength of democracy in the Kingdom.”

The Bahrain government, as protesters continue to be brutalized, has not addressed condemnations or criticisms issued by human rights organizations.

Flickr Photo by NotiZulia

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