HRW: “The Court is Satisfied with the Confession”


In a February 2019 letter to the United Nations Office in Geneva, the government of Bahrain claimed that its courts “actually hand down very few death sentences.” In fact, since 2011, courts in Bahrain have sentenced 51 people to death, and the state has executed six since the end of a de facto moratorium on executions in 2017. As of June 2022, 26 men were on death row, and all have exhausted their appeals. Under Bahraini law, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has the power to ratify these sentences, commute them, or grant pardons.

While the death penalty is not absolutely prohibited under international human rights law, article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), dealing with the right to life, requires that death sentences “may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.” In the February 2019 letter to the United Nations, the Bahraini government wrote that the death penalty is “applied solely as a penalty for extremely serious offenses, such as premeditated murder as an aggravating circumstance.” The United Nations General Assembly, beginning in 2007 and most recently in 2020, passed resolutions calling on states to impose a moratorium on their use of the death penalty. Presently, some 170 states have abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium on its use in law or in practice, reflecting a growing international consensus against its use.

Article 14 of the ICCPR details fundamental fair trial rights, starting with the presumption of innocence. Bahrain acceded to the ICCPR on September 20, 2006. Bahrain’s constitution affirms that “an accused person is innocent until proven guilty.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has determined that in death penalty cases “scrupulous respect of the guarantees of fair trial is particularly important.”

Article 7 of the ICCPR prohibits torture and ill-treatment, and article 14(3)(g) states that a person is “not to be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt.” Bahrain is also a state party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Bahrain’s constitution also prohibits torture and ill-treatment as well as the use of coerced confessions against criminal defendants at trial. Bahrain’s Code of Criminal Procedure includes the same prohibition against the admission of coerced confessions and other basic fair trial requirements such as access to a lawyer and the right to cross-examine witnesses.

In the prosecutions resulting in death sentences examined in this report, Bahraini courts manifestly failed to protect fundamental fair trial rights as provided for in international and Bahraini law. In other cases, the courts meted out death sentences for charges not involving the gravest offenses, namely non-violent drug crimes, violating international and Bahraini law.

This report documents that, in case after case, courts convicted defendants of the crime of homicide and sentenced them to death based solely or primarily on confessions that the defendants (or co-defendants) alleged were coerced through torture and ill-treatment. In these cases, courts repeatedly failed to observe the requirements of international and Bahraini law that courts ensure any allegations of torture or ill-treatment are impartially investigated and that, only if a genuine investigation deems the torture allegations unfounded, may a confession be received into evidence. These cases were plagued by other violations of key rights as well, including the right to counsel and the right to confront government witnesses. For these reasons, it is clear that the state failed to respect the presumption of innocence in the six homicide cases addressed in detail below, which resulted in eight people being sentenced to death. In the cases this report examines in detail the charged crimes were serious, typically involving the death of a police officer in a violent protest. These eight persons are among 26 currently on death row in Bahrain and they have exhausted all avenues of appeal. They can be executed once the king ratifies their sentences.

The seriousness of the charges in these cases was not matched by the seriousness of the prosecutions and court rulings that resulted in the death sentences. Each case involved credible allegations of confessions extracted through torture and ill-treatment, often supported even by cursory medical examinations that government doctors conducted. In some cases, prosecutors appeared to be complicit in these abuses. In all cases, the prosecution and the courts failed to genuinely investigate, or to credit the results of those investigations that were carried out, into the alleged torture and ill-treatment.

In one prosecution examined below, police arrested Maher Abbas al-Khabbaz in connection with the February 2013 killing of a police officer. Al-Khabbaz alleged that officers suspended him in the air with a metal bar and beat him in an attempt to force him to confess. A forensic doctor with the Public Prosecution Office concluded that al-Khabbaz had injuries consistent with his allegations. Police also arrested al-Khabbaz’s brother, Fadhel, in connection with the same case. Fadhel said that officers kicked him, suspended him in the air, and beat him with a hard object until he signed a “confession” he was not allowed to see. A medical report indicated that Fadhel also had injuries consistent with his allegations of abuse.

The trial court sentenced Maher al-Khabbaz to death in February 2014, based on purported confessions that implicated him by Fadhel and several other defendants, who also alleged coercion. The court took no steps to investigate whether the confessions were voluntary, writing that there was no evidence that any abuse “was [done] with the intention of forcing a confession.” Thus, the court focused on the subjective intent of the officers alleged to have tortured the defendants, rather than on the critical questions of whether the defendants were tortured and the confessions resulted from the torture.

An appellate court summarily affirmed Maher al-Khabbaz’s conviction, but in December 2015, the Court of Cassation reversed the judgment due to concerns about the confessions and directed the appellate court to examine the allegations of mistreatment. The appellate court ignored that directive and concluded a second time that the convictions were proper, on the same grounds it had cited in its first decision. In January 2018, the Court of Cassation inexplicably affirmed the second appellate decision even though it did nothing to address the flaws the Court of Cassation had earlier identified. As a result, al-Khabbaz today is on death row.

In a different case, police arrested Zuhair Ebrahim Jasim Abdullah in November 2017 for his purported involvement in the killing of a police officer. Abdullah alleged that security officers removed his clothing and attempted to rape him, used electric shocks on his chest and genitals, deprived him of sleep for several weeks, and threatened to rape his wife. Prior to his trial, Abdullah filed complaints with the Ministry of Interior’s Office of the Ombudsman  and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), governmental bodies responsible for investigating alleged abuses. According to Abdullah, in his complaint, he claimed that he had confessed falsely to stop the torture the officers were inflicting on him.

During Abdullah’s trial, he argued his confession had been coerced and that the case should be stayed until the SIU-Ombudsman investigations were complete. The court denied this request and dismissed the torture allegations, stating in its verdict that it was “assured of the validity and seriousness of [the] investigations.” The court sentenced Abdullah to death in November 2018, based almost entirely on his confession.

An appellate court rejected Abdullah’s appeal, including arguments about coercion, finding that the “verdict ensured a justified and proper response” to those arguments. The appellate court concluded further it had been proper not to adjourn the case because Abdullah’s complaints were “still under investigation” – the very reason why the case should have been stayed. The Court of Cassation affirmed the verdict in June 2020.

In February 2014, government officers arrested Mohamed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa in connection with the death of a police officer several days earlier. Ramadhan and Moosa claimed that security personnel subjected them to repeated torture and ill-treatment during their detention to force them to confess falsely to orchestrating the officer’s killing. Physicians from the Ministry of Interior and Public Prosecution Office concluded Moosa had various injuries in the days after his arrest – injuries that were consistent with Moosa’s claims of physical abuse.

The only evidence inculpating Ramadhan and Moosa was their confessions and those of four co-defendants who also claimed they had been coerced into confessing. The trial court’s verdict did not respond to Ramadhan’s arguments about coercion or even mention that the four co-defendants had claimed coercion. The court rejected Moosa’s arguments for reasons that were contradicted by medical records, internally inconsistent in describing Moosa’s complaints about torture, and contradicted by later statements from the Bahraini government. The court convicted Ramadhan and Moosa and sentenced them to death.

The appellate court and the Court of Cassation affirmed the sentences. Subsequently, however, the Court of Cassation granted a Public Prosecution Office request to re-open the case, based on a previously undisclosed SIU investigation that raised serious questions as to whether Ramadhan and Moosa had been ill-treated. In a second proceeding, the appellate court again rejected the coercion arguments, relying entirely on the first appellate determination, which had been issued before the SIU investigation results that precipitated the second proceeding were disclosed. In July 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld the death sentences of Ramadhan and Moosa.

In each of these cases and others detailed in the report, courts relied on confessions as the only or primary evidence to sentence people to death, while failing to address meaningfully, if at all, claims that the defendants had been subjected to torture and their confessions coerced. In every case, courts rejected those arguments, summarily concluding that no abuse had occurred or based on analyses that were replete with inconsistencies or contradicted by undisputed evidence.

The Bahraini courts at all levels failed to fulfill their obligations to investigate reports of torture or other abuses and to prohibit the use of coerced confessions as evidence.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that in these cases, all of which have seen defendants placed on death row, Bahraini authorities violated the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment. It also is difficult to avoid concluding that Bahraini courts violated their obligations under international and Bahraini law to investigate such abuses and respect fundamental fair trial rights. As a result, there is no legitimate basis to conclude that the state had respected the presumption of innocence in these cases.

The systematic nature of these serious violations is underscored by other commonalities found among the cases. First, much of the torture and ill-treatment described in this report was alleged to have occurred in two locations – the Criminal Investigation Directorate of the Ministry of Interior, which is housed in a compound in the Adliya district of Manama, and the Royal Academy of Policing, located adjacent to Bahrain’s Jau Prison. There also are substantial similarities in the forms of torture and ill-treatment described by the eight defendants. All claimed that officers beat them using fists. Seven stated that officers specifically targeted their genitals with punches, kicks or electric shocks. Four described sleep deprivation and threats made to harm their family members, including threats of rape. And several said officers had suspended them in the air.

In addition, these cases were rife with violations of the due process and fair trial rights enumerated in article 14 of the ICCPR and Bahraini law. In all six cases, it appears the defendants did not have any access to counsel during interrogations or appropriate access to counsel during trial. In two cases, defendants were not given materials the prosecution used at trial; in one instance, the information consisted of an inculpatory report that relied on secret sources whom the defense could not cross-examine. In another case, the court did not allow for the presentation of defense witnesses.

The individuals whose cases this report discusses are currently imprisoned and awaiting execution at Jau Prison, Building 1, the prison’s isolation ward.

As noted, since 2018, Bahraini courts have also imposed the death sentence on at least five individuals for non-violent drug offenses such as transporting, selling, or possessing hashish. Such offenses, even if involving large quantities of narcotics, in no way qualify as among “the most serious crimes.” Three of the 26 individuals on death row in Jau Prison have been convicted on drug-related charges.

The human rights violations that underlie the death sentences in this report, including the prohibition against torture and denial of fair trial rights, are so serious as to amount to violations of the right to life and reflect not a justice system, but a pattern of injustice.

The government of Bahrain should officially reinstate the de facto moratorium on judicial executions that ended in 2017 and take steps to formally outlaw the death penalty in all circumstances. As a first step, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa should commute the death sentences of all persons, starting with those convicted solely or primarily based on confessions that they argued in court had been coerced. The convictions of those persons should be quashed and the persons freed or, if evidence other than confessions exists, retried in judicial proceedings that meet international due process and fair trial standards. The king should also commute the death sentences of persons convicted of offenses such as drug crimes that do not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” and those persons should be re-sentenced. The government moreover should repeal article 30 of Law No. 15 of 2007, which allows capital punishment for drug-related crimes.

King Hamad should appoint an independent commission to investigate and report publicly on violations of the prohibition of torture by security and judicial officials, including the Public Prosecution Office’s use of evidence obtained through torture or ill-treatment in criminal cases. The Bahraini authorities should prosecute and/or impose disciplinary measures on any security official or prosecutor found responsible for committing or condoning acts of torture and ill-treatment.

The government furthermore should quash all convictions of persons whose trials involved serious violations of due process and fair trial rights protected in international and Bahraini law, such as the right to legal counsel during all phases of the criminal process (including interrogations), the right to access prosecution materials, and the right to cross-examine witnesses. Those persons should be freed or re-tried if the government has evidence of crimes that does not rely on allegedly coerced confessions, and any retrials should be conducted in judicial proceedings that meet all relevant legal standards.

The government should extend a standing invitation to all UN thematic special procedures, including the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and accept the pending visit request of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. In addition, the government should ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Committee Against Torture, allowing international experts to conduct regular visits to places of detention and providing for the creation of an independent inspectorate.

Source: HRW