In 2011, Bahrain’s state security services crushed a pro-democracy uprising. Tens were killed, hundreds tortured, and thousands incarcerated. Since then, low-level violence has continued to afflict the country. In order to appease its mostly Western critics, who were concerned by its repressive behaviors, the al-Khalifa regime vociferously embarked on a dubious process of political and security-sector reform.
Despite its shrill insistence on the genuine nature of these reforms, amplified by the millions it has spent on PR firms, the government has failed to show a real commitment to changing the status quo. Nowhere is this more evident than in the state security sector, where officials have remained virtually immune from prosecution for their part in killing and torturing Bahrainis.
Despite the continuing deaths of protesters in custody as recently as a few weeks ago, Bahrain’s criminal justice system has disciplined only a handful of state security employees. Among those who have been convicted by the courts, many have had their sentences reduced, convictions overturned, or received nominal sentences.
Over the past three years, the scale of killings and torture, coupled with the most limited veneer of police accountability, have underscored the Bahraini government’s failure to address one of the most important elements of political reform: achieving justice. Without justice, the state remains unaccountable for violations of civil and human rights, and its progressive credentials, if any, are rendered laughable.
Prosecute, Convict, Appeal, Reduce Sentence, Repeat
To be clear, the Bahraini government has been quick to underscore its prosecution of police officers accused of unlawful killing, torture, or mistreatment. There is, however, a distinct pattern of legal wrangling that obscures the lack of accountability. First, although prosecutions routinely begin with accusations against several police officers, the number of defendants is often whittled down. Those officers actually taken to trial also appear small in relation to the overall number of suspected cases of police abuse, as detailed in the November 2011 report from the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) .
These circumstances are demonstrated by a case involving the torture of France 24 journalist Nazeeha Saeed. In her initial testimony, Saeed claimed she was abused by at least four officers, yet only one was ultimately prosecuted. The same is true of Ali Ibrahim Saqer, who died in custody after being tortured. Five men were accused of involvement in his killing, but only two were eventually convicted.
In addition to prosecuting only a handful of police officers, the state appears to be using a long, drawn out legal process to obfuscate the lack of accountability. It is not uncommon to have a lengthy series of legal procedures that serve to initially incriminate but ultimately either exonerate policemen or reduce their sentences. This is highlighted by a number of cases, including one involving two policemen who tortured and killed Ali Saqer. The men, who were initially to serve ten years in jail, eventually had their sentences reduced to 2 years*. The policemen who tortured and killed civilian Karim Fakhrawi while in custody were initially sentenced to seven years for manslaughter, but had their sentences reduced to three after appeal. The police officer accused of killing and shooting civilian Ali Mushaima was initially given a sentence of seven years for manslaughter, which was reduced to three years following appeal. The police officer, who shot Hani Abdulaziz Jumma, was initially sentenced to seven years for ‘manslaughter,’ which was reduced to six months on appeal. Ali al-Shaiba, an officer accused of permanently disabling a man by shooting him in the leg, was originally given five years. His sentence was ultimately reduced to three years and then six months on account of the defendant’s ill health.
It is unclear whether these verdicts are final, or still subject to a final appeal. As Amnesty International has reported, this confusion is problematic because police officers remain on duty pending the outcome of an appeal and issuing of a final judgment. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights has confirmed these circumstances, and reported that officers are appearing at trial in their uniforms, presumably because they remain on duty.
What is more, there is uncertainty as to whether convicted security officers actually serve time in prison. In its latest report detailing the human rights situation in Bahrain, the U.S. State Department stated it did not know if the ‘courts enforced any of the sentences and if security officers were actually in prison following sentencing.’ Naturally, this begs the question as to how the United States can claim the Bahraini government is reforming when it cannot even confirm if police are being held accountable for crimes as egregious as torture and murder.
In many other cases in which civilians were reportedly killed by the state, the police and other members of the security forces have either been acquitted. Between 2011 and 2012, 45 cases involving civilian deaths were dismissed due to a lack of evidence. That is, 45 deaths in which police were suspected of killing the majority of victims. For example, two officers accused of shooting Fadhel al Matrook in February 2011 were acquitted.
The five policemen accused of beating blogger Zakariya Al-Asheeri to death in custody were also acquitted.
The Ministry of Interior (MoI) frequently argues that the responsible officers were acting in self-defense, implicitly implying the victim was endangering the lives of the police. In cases where security officers are actually convicted of killing or torture, they are only ever charged with ‘manslaughter’, absolving them of malicious intent in committing these crimes.
In some cases, the government even refuses to accept that some deaths warrant suspicion, such as the case of a sixty one year old man found dead, stuffed in a plastic bag in a car park. The BICI deemed his death to be suspicious. Although the man’s car was last seen at a police station and a coffee shop, the authorities concluded there was no sign of criminal activity or malicious behavior surrounding his death.
There are also issues surrounding who is prosecuted. Given the government’s reliance on foreign ‘mercenaries,’ many of those prosecuted are low-ranking officers from countries like Yemen and Pakistan. . The Bahraini authorities claim that the highest ranking official to be prosecuted is a lieutenant colonel, though it is unclear what charges he faces. By and large, high-ranking officers and members of the ruling family seem to have evaded prosecution, even though one human rights report accused at least four members of the ruling family of involvement in torture.
One royal, Noura bint Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, was acquitted of torturing two doctors and a 21-year old student Ayat al-Qormezi. Even King Hamad’s son, Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, has been accused of torturing detainees. As I have observed before, the ‘tactic of selectively holding only low-level security officers accountable represents an attempt to paint police deviance as the work of a couple of ‘rotten apples’, rogue officers operating with individualistic motives but whose actions are not reflective of the police institution as a whole.’
In addition to these high profile cases, countless video evidence depicts other acts of police brutality and forms of police deviance, including the throwing of Molotov cocktails and metal bars, the vandalizing of property, and the dangerous use of tear gas. Occasionally, when the video evidence goes viral, the MoI may announce an investigation, but often that is the last anyone hears of the case. One of the most high profile incidents involved at least 13 officers who were filmed brutalizing a group of boys. It was the video equivalent of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 and was filmed from five different angles by bystanders. While the MoI announced the officers were suspended, no more has been heard about the incident.
Why Do the Police Enjoy Impunity?
Bahrain’s lack of state accountability is rooted in history. Charles Belgrave, the British head of police in Bahrain during much of the first half of the 1900s, personally beat up detainees, arguing it was ‘illegal’ but sometimes necessary. His officers also deployed other methods of torture, which he claimed to abhor yet did little to stop. In the 1950s, when police officers killed a number of civilians during protests, the British were worried that accountability would lower morale, and thus weaken the police as a fighting force. As such, no one was held accountable. Similarly, following the death of 8 civilians during protests in 1965, no police officers were held accountable.
Other deaths in police or military custody, such as the torture of Jamal Ali and Sayyed Al-Owainati in the seventies and eighties, have seen no known criminal proceedings. Following the Intifada of the 1990s, in which the police killed dozens of Bahrainis, the King introduced Royal Decree 56, which effectively extended a general amnesty to any state officials accused of torture. Indeed, Amnesty International believes no members of the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) or Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) have been brought to justice for engaging in acts of torture prior to 1995.
Broadly speaking, governments around the world rarely prosecute those who commit crimes in the name of protecting the state. As the criminology specialist Austin Turk once said, ‘court and administrative decisions exonerating legal control agents are to be expected in any polity.’ In addition to this, those Bahraini security forces not drawn from abroad are often members of the country’s Sunni community, a constituency the government often depends on for support. To anger this population by prosecuting state security officers risks alienating an important constituency.
Pressure groups such as The National Youth Gathering set up by the influential ex-colonel Adel Flaifel (himself accused of torture) also exist to defend police being prosecuted for crimes committed during the current uprising. Increasing violence by some activists has also generated a more punitive attitude among such supporters, who have, in turn, advocated for more aggressive policing that can more frequently result in the excessive use of force. This support for zero tolerance policing is often accompanied by a related desire to extend impunity to the police for their excesses.
Underlining this lack of accountability is a systemic problem with the country’s court apparatus, which is dominated by members of the ruling family or judges unwilling to make politically unpopular decisions. This problem is augmented by Bahrain’s prime minister, who was recently filmed thanking an officer accused of torturing detainees. At the same gathering, the prime minister told a group of loyalists that Bahrain’s laws did ‘not apply to them.’
Given all this evidence, it is clear that Bahrain’s Western allies remain willfully blind to the lack of accountability in the country. The free hand given to state security officials represents a deep problem pervading government structures, the judiciary, and state mechanisms designed to protect the rights of citizens all of which reflect the will of political elites rather than the principle of impartial justice. Attempts to portray the accused as low-ranking, rotten applies are also misleading. Given the police abuses carried out in Bahrain in 2011, the concept of a ‘rotten orchard’ seems more appropriate. Coined by Professor Maurice Punch in 2003, this metaphor underscores the fact that police criminality in Bahrain is not simply the fault of individuals or groups, but rather is a result of formal structures such as ‘the police organization, the criminal justice system, and the broader socio-political context.’
These legal manouvers by Bahraini authorities are a facade for a lack of accountability, designed to detract attention from systemic political reforms that are needed to enable both a reduction in police deviance and an increase in genuine accountability in Bahrain.