By: Ghina Rebai
What are the Bahraini authorities hiding in order to prevent international bodies from being reassured about the safety of those detainees? Does it go beyond the fact that the prisoners of conscience in Qurain are civilians?
The problem started with the beginning of the February 14 movement in Bahrain in 2011, when massive peaceful demonstrations took place in the capital, Manama.
Protests were met with repression and the arrest of protesters, and the events accelerated until Bahrain’s prisons were filled with thousands of prisoners of conscience within several months.
Since then, prisons and detention centers in Bahrain have also become famous for their high rates of torture, ill-treatment, and various forms of violations against prisoners of conscience, with the number of arrests exceeding hundreds every year since the beginning of the movement.
Former prisoners of conscience narrate the stages of psychological and physical torture they went through. Torture begins in the investigation phase, where fabricated confessions are extracted from the detainees by severely beating them and subjecting them to electroshocks and sexual harassment, in addition to the painful and inhumane methods devised by the interrogators, to the extent that most of the detainees confess to what they did not commit, then they are sent on trial on the basis of those confessions in courts that are no more impartial and independent than detention and torture centers.
The wife of a prisoner of conscience reported that during receiving his family’s first visit in prison after the end of the interrogation phase, she asked him about what he had been subjected to since his arrest, but he did not answer the question out of concern for the feelings of his parents who were present, but he curtly told her “if they offered me a cat and ordered me to confess that it is my mother, I would do it [to escape the severity of the torture].”
A former prisoner of conscience reported that he was arrested a year after his son’s detention, and when he met his son in prison, he saw signs of torture on his back, so he asked him about it, and his son replied that they were old scars of the torture he was subjected to a year earlier. The father said, “I was shocked when I saw those scars that did not heal even after a year.”
Many other detainees’ families report cases of torture that their children are subjected to from the first moment of their arrest.
However, because systematic torture is a tool used by the Bahraini authorities to put pressure on political opponents, human rights activists, and citizens who participate in protests or even write posts on social media contrary to Al Khalifa’s policies, it [torture] won’t stop after the transfer of detainees from interrogation centers to prisons. Instead of daily beatings, a detainee would be subjected to severe beatings, pepper spray, solitary confinement, and getting dragged on the prison corridors under the watch of surveillance cameras… in cases such as objecting to the confiscation of his possessions, going on strike to protest ill-treatment against him or against other detainees, or claiming an obvious right, such as medical treatment, and even practicing religious rituals on certain occasions.
Without any occasion or clear reason, prisoners of conscience are subjected, on a daily basis, to denial of medical treatment (no matter how serious or chronic the disease is), verbal assaults, deprivation of necessary possessions, and denial of education.
This is how the daily life of thousands of innocent detainees in Bahrain can be summed up, and this is what happens in most detention centers and prisons there, whether it was Jau Central Prison, which has the largest percentage of human violations, or Dry Dock Prison, where most of the minor detainees are held, or Issa Town Women’s Prison (even though the last female prisoner of conscience was released in 2022).
However, the matter is not limited to the aforementioned in the case of Qurain Military Prison. In addition to the same forms of torture and ill-treatment, the reason for their arrest is mainly based on fabrications, and fabrications are multiplied especially against the prisoners of conscience in Qurain Military Prison because their trials occur in military courts and the charges attributed to them have a more dangerous security nature, so they become subject to more severe penalties and treatment dominated by a security “grip”, in spite of the fact that they are civilians and do not belong to the security services. What led military courts to prosecute civilians and detain them in a military prison?
One of the manifestations of the political crisis that began after the outbreak of the February 14 movement in 2011, which resulted in a social and human rights crisis, is that the Bahraini authorities amended certain laws in line with their plan to persecute protesters, and by amending those laws, they violated general law principles of worldwide common concepts. Violating those common law principles is considered a sufficient reason to condemn the governing body.
A month and a half after the beginning of the movement, 502 civilians were on trial in military courts called “National Safety Courts.” Some were peaceful protesters and even doctors and medical staff who participated in treating injured protesters. Military trials mainly targeted popular elites, such as opposition political leaders, teachers, doctors, etc… until the total number of military sentences issued against civilians reached 165, according to the report released by the Fact-Finding Committee (known as the Bassiouni Commission), which was published on November 23, 2011.
On March 30, 2017, the King of Bahrain made a constitutional amendment in which he changed the powers of the Military Court to include the trial of civilians after its jurisdiction was limited to “members of the Defense Force, the National Guard, and Public Security, and it does not extend to others except when martial law is declared, within the limits determined by the law” Article 105 paragraph (b) of the constitution (noting that the Bahraini constitution known as the “constitution of grant” was drafted unilaterally by the King of Bahrain in 2002 after he overturned the National Action Pact that had been issued in 2001). The text of the amended constitutional paragraph became as follows: “The law organizes the military judiciary and clarifies its jurisdiction in each of the Bahrain Defense Force, the National Guard, and the Public Security Forces.”
This constitutional amendment was followed by an amendment of the Military Judiciary Law on April 18, 2017, which gave jurisdiction to the military judiciary to sentence civilians accused of political cases stipulated in the Penal Code. That is to say, a legal loophole was created in the constitution to facilitate an amendment of the Military Judiciary Law to allow the jurisprudence to consider that mentioning those mainly concerned in the amended constitutional clause (“Bahrain Defense Force, National Guard, and Public Security Forces”) does not mean that the military court is not authorized to try others, according to the amendment after deleting the phrase “It does not extend to others except when martial law is declared.” Accordingly, 13 civilians were on trial in military courts after those amendments and final rulings were issued against them by the Military Court of Cassation on April 11, 2018. Five of them are still detained today in Qurain Military Prison. They are Sayed Alawai Al-Mussawi, Muhammad Abdul-Hassan Al-Mitghawwi, Sayyed Fadel Abbas Radhi, Muhammad Abdul-Hussein Al-Shahabi, and Mubarak Adel Muhanna.
In terms of form, the torture method of interrogation and trial of civilians in military courts do not differ from that in civilian courts. The same torture protocol was practiced against them and forced many of them to confess to grave crimes they did not commit, to the extent that 20 medical personnel were convicted of kidnapping and storing weapons in 2011 as the “National Safety Courts” ruled, solely for their participation in providing medical treatment for injured protesters.
The 13 military trials in 2018 flagrantly violated the universally common legal principles stipulated and affirmed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as the verdicts were based on:
– Confessions extracted under torture
– “Secret evidence” that the defense parties were not allowed to know about and discuss during trials
– The same interrogators who tortured the detainees and forced them to sign fabricated confessions were brought as witnesses for the plaintiff party (the government).
– Defense parties were deprived of defending themselves! (Noting that some of them were later retried in the civil courts).
One of the consequences of military rulings is that the convicts are detained in Qurain Military Prison, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Defense and not with the Ministry of Interior, which reflects the type of characteristics that the authorities are trying to associate the prisoners with, in order to present them as people who threaten the country’s civil peace and that it is necessary to give guardianship in their accountability to the official security agencies accordingly. This includes distorting the image of the civilians who went out in protests or the doctors and medical personnel who treated the protesters injured by gunfire of the state’s repressive apparatus in order to make them appear as if by their actions they were threatening civil peace.
Of course, the Bahraini authorities did not explicitly express their refusal for the peaceful protesters to receive medical treatment, so the detainees found themselves (after the bloody phase of interrogation) facing pre-prepared court charges that they knew nothing about and having signed “their confessions”, blindfolded, just to make the “interrogations” stop.
Another difference between convicts of the military court and those of civilian courts is that the security grip inside Qurain Military Prison is tighter. The detainees in Qurain conveyed to their family members during family visits that each detainee is held in a single cell that is under surveillance 24/7, without having any privacy even in the bathrooms. The detainees meet with each other for less than an hour a day in the prison yard, which measures 4 by 5 meters. Members of the military staff of officers and personnel inside the Qurain do not get replaced. Unlike other detainees in Jau Central Prison or Dry Dock Prison, detainees in Quarin Military Prison were unable to convey through audio recordings the events they faced in terms of repression (even though recorded audios led ‘Jau’ and ‘Dry Dock’ detainees to punishments of solitary confinement, denial of phone calls, and denial of family visits).
The family of a civilian prisoner of conscience in Qurain Military Prison reports that he forcibly disappeared for six months shortly after his arrest and that they (the family) tried at that time to find out his whereabouts, so they resorted to the National Institution for Human Rights, the Ombudsman, the Special Investigation Unit, and the Intelligence Center, but they did not receive any useful response. The National Institution for Human Rights responded that he was in the Ministry of Interior, but later, it turned out otherwise, that he was incarcerated under the custody of the Ministry of Defense to be on trial by a military court. A final death sentence ruled by the Military Court of Cassation was issued against him based on fabricated charges, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment with a judicial “act” that was planned in advance, as the court officers called the detainee’s family just one day before the verdict was issued against him and insisted that the family attend the trial session. On the same day after the death sentence was issued, it was announced that the King had decided (unilaterally) to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. Members of the security officers turned to the family members and said, “Did you see how merciful the King is with you?”
Today, the family comments that the National Institution for Human Rights and the Ombudsman benefit from the detainees’ families reviewing them so that they can “fill out files and say that they reviewed such and such numbers of cases.” The family said they have lost hope of receiving any real help from these organizations if they requested medical treatment for their detained son who suffers from diseases that require reviews from specialized doctors and need organized regular medical follow-ups.
The Bahraini authorities still refuse the requests by the concerned special rapporteurs and international human rights organizations to enter the prisons and see the conditions of these detainees. What are the Bahraini authorities hiding in order to prevent international bodies from being reassured about the safety of those detainees? Does it go beyond the fact that the prisoners of conscience in Qurain are civilians? Are those prisoners of conscience in Qurain exposed to what should be completely hidden from public opinion?