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Chasing accountability; facing impunity

Bahrain's attempt to hold the state security services to account is channeled through campaigning, lobbying and of course the revolution itself. But what help are the official channels, and the law?

The importance of accountability for the stability of regimes should not be understated. The scope and brutality of the crackdown in Bahrain is increasing popular resentment towards the illegitimacy of Bahrain’s system of rule: force alone is not capable of providing authentication for governance.

Furthermore, the ruling class in Bahrain have misplaced the exact definition of accountability and its practical applicability, through the error of conflating its meaning with that of responsibility. Although both terms denote the acceptance of certain obligations, accountability inherits the implied dimension of also accepting sanctions towards failed duties, or malpractice.

Moreover, accountability implies a deeper degree of obligation. The mere recognition that ‘crimes were committed by security forces’, alongside the promise of meek reforms, is insufficient to calm a revolution. Proportionate sanctions against upper level personnel are necessary, alongside the acquittal of political prisoners and those charged with crimes of expression.

Power and proxies make impunity

In response to the outcry against state security abuses, and the mounting pressure against the government, Bahrain’s King convened the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. The commission concluded that ‘systematic torture’ took place during the crackdown; the most common methods used included electrocution, sleep deprivation, and beatings using whips, metal and wooden planks. The Commission also attributed a number of deaths to the security forces and declared that the use of lethal and excessive force led to the death of civilians.

It was concluded that those responsible for abuses, including high-ranking personnel, should be held to account through disciplinary action. Moreover, the Commission recommended that the Judiciary and Prosecutor should receive training to ensure the eradication of torture and ill treatment, to compensate victims of torture and to investigate all the deaths attributed to the security forces by an ‘independent and impartial body’. Ensuing investigations were to be set at a standard that should lead to 'the prosecution of the implicated individuals, both direct and at all levels of responsibility, with a view to ensuring that punishment be consistent with the gravity of the offence'.

Despite its importance as a relatively impartial narrative of the events of early 2011, the report produced by the Commission (henceforth BICI report) has been used as a proxy for reform, rather than a catalyst for accountability at the top-tier of government.

Indeed, instead of being used to identify individual cases of ultra vires and hold both principal and secondary perpetrators to account, the BICI report itself has been given authority as a statement of reformation, without its recommendations being fully applied. A recent report by POMED argued that only three out of the twenty-six recommendations had been fully implemented, in stark contrast to the Bahrain government's claim that 18 recommendations had been.

But in essence, the main question of who is accountable for crimes committed by the State has been misplaced.  In the relatively scarce instances where State representatives have appeared as defendants in court, they have been lower ranking members of the police charged with crimes that are accompanied by far lighter jail sentences than those attached to crimes of expression.  

Furthermore, despite the number of Al Khalifas in the security forces, only one of the cases against police officers implicated in torture involved a member of the royal family. This was Noora Al Khalifa, who was charged with torturing a group of female doctors. The allegations were serious: Dr. Fatima Hajji reported being beaten, electrocuted, sexually harassed, threatened with rape, forced to stand on one leg, dance and make animal noises under Noora’s supervision. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Noora was acquitted and Dr. Fatima Hajji’s case was dropped at the first hearing.  

A similar exhibition of impunity took place on June 24, 2013 when policewoman Sarah Moosa was acquitted of torturing France24 correspondent Naziha Saeed. It is important to note that although Sarah Moosa was subject to prosecution, she was only one of at least four officers who abused Naziha.  This selectivity indicates how cases against security forces are cherry picked in order to create the illusion that police deviance is the result of only a few rotten apples, rather than a rotten orchard.

The Bahrain government’s own follow-up report to the BICI highlights their lack of commitment towards police accountability. Amongst other things, the report documented that of the 122 allegations of torture and abuse, only 9 were referred to court, and these involved 11 low ranked police officers. In addition to this, 45 cases of death were thrown out due to the ‘lack of evidence of any criminal act’ available. Two other cases were neglected because ‘there was no justification for criminal charges’. Human Rights Watch has disputed government claims that it is even investigating 122 officers for the use of torture.

Furthermore, the Court of Cassation, Bahrain's highest court of appeal, has yet to uphold any charges of murder directed at members of the police force. Instead, sentences of manslaughter have been issued. As well as only carrying modest jail terms, these sentences are often slashed when the spotlight on the case fades. To put this into context, the amount of jail time (6 months) given to the police officer that killed Hani Abdulaziz Juma during a march in 2011 is the same amount of time given to a student during the 2011 London riots for stealing a bottle of water. Moreover, on the same day, the Court acquitted two more police officers faced with charges of shooting protesters to death in 2011 whilst simultaneously sentencing 19 demonstrators to 5-year jail terms for attacking the police.  

In many instances, officers accused of serious charges are freed during trial and allowed to continue working. The Court has also failed to protect victims of torture, one of the central recommendations made by the BICI. Most recently Rihanna Al Mousawi, a political detainee charged as one of the leaders of the ’14 February Coalition’, alleged in court that she was stripped twice during her detention, tortured and threatened with rape. The Court responded by postponing her case and sending her back to prison.

During a recent UK Foreign Affairs Committee evidence session, Sir Nigel Rodley, a member of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, voiced his unease at the progress of accountability in Bahrain, stating; ‘giving modest sentences for torturers and serious sentences for people who speak out is worrying’. He added that the ‘training’ of security personnel would not in itself bring reform, and that ‘training might be used as an indication of an evolution that has not taken place’.

Accountability has been given the limited weight of providing accounts for actions taken without perpetrators actually being held to account, with the implication that accountability is proven through responsiveness. The report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry is no more than an ordinary basis for further development, it cannot carry in itself enough weight to end the political crisis. Lacking even a mandate to identify cases for prosecution, it is not even an adequate response.

Sir Rodley admitted that the report simply “does not cover it all”. True enough: there has been no independent inquiry into the accusations of torture, arbitrary killing and the excessive use of force that have occurred following the publication of the report in 2011.

Continued police abuse and ‘Counter Reform

The failure to implement the BICI recommendations can be demonstrated in recent cases of police brutality.  In June a video was leaked of a young male stripped to the waist and showing signs of having been beaten, being forced to confess by members of the police whilst being filmed. The police officer is heard rancorously leading Hussain Ali Marhoon towards saying that the leader of the opposition society Al Wefaq, Ali Salman, and Bahrain Shia Cleric Isa Qassim, paid him to carry out attacks against the police. Hussain answered accordingly and confirmed to the police officer that he will sing the same song at court.

The film went viral. Although the Ministry of Interior announced an investigation into the leak via their Twitter account, it unfortunately confirms that unless the specific case gains attention, it will be left to dissolve with time.

Hitherto there has been a clear gap between law and state action in security and public prosecution. However, that gap is becoming difficult to distinguish; those actions (which should be illegal) are being entrenched in law. The recent ratification of a royal decree imposing jail terms for insulting the king, flag or national anthem in Bahrain is a prime example of this. Insulting the king has historically been a ratified state crime within press and defamation laws; the export of the practice to criminal law illustrates the development of a securitized status quo through the limitation of expression and the lack of political and social reform.

Moreover, the Shurah Council – the Upper House of Parliament comprised of 40 unelected members fully appointed by the King and vested with legislative authority – recently approved a 20-year sentence (increased from 3 years) for the act of ‘inciting hatred’ against security forces including the police, NSA and CID. In addition to this, the law was changed in 2012 to increase the penalty faced by those who attacked a police officer. Coupled with the general lack of accountability faced by officers who abuse civilians, this shows a government empowering a security force to control, not to serve.

A state full of terrorists?

On July 28, Bahrain's National Assembly agreed upon a set of recommendations to be legally binding involving so-called 'terrorism offenses'. The vast majority of the actions mentioned in these recommendations have already been used against opposition members, and the incorporation of them in law shows that accountability and reform is not even close.

An article published through state media claimed to afford residents of Muharraq, largely government supporters, ‘special powers of arrest’. Although the article has since been removed, all that has in reality been refuted is the formal implementation of this practice in law. The use of alternative forms of arrest, punishment, and spying have always been afforded to specific individuals tasked with infiltrating communities and villages. In many cases, citizens have been found associating with security personnel while carrying either weaponry sporting live ammunition or shotgun pellets, or a crowd control arsenal such as teargas.

The Minister of Interior has similarly voiced support for those who ‘cooperate with policemen’ to document ‘terrorist crimes’. He pointed towards the notion of a soon-to-be law of ‘volunteering to serve public security’. These are worrying developments considering that the government seems ready to brand as a terrorist any person critical of their system.

On July 7, 2013, a video was leaked of a private meeting between the Prime Minister, and a small group that included Mubarak bin Huwail, charged with the torture of six medics but acquitted six days before. In the video the Prime Minister tells those present:

These laws cannot be applied to you. No one can touch this bond. Whoever applies these laws against you is applying them against us. We are one body.

Playing an integral role in Bahrain’s system of external interventionism, the UK has attempted to distance itself from Bahrain human rights abuses, yet at the same time reiterated mutual support for its close historical ally. The import of John Yates to reform security has been accompanied by an increase in violence through the excessive use of teargas and the rise of online monitoring and IP spying to identify and target individuals associated with the protest movement. Developments on the ground suggest that Bahrain is unlikely to offer meaningful reforms anytime soon.

The three-way structure of rule and regulation that in most nations comprises of an independent executive, legislature and judiciary, heavily concentrates upon security concerns. It is moreover a failed task to attempt to find a distinctive separation of powers between these three bodies. Civil society can hardly hold the security sector to account when the foundations of regulation work together as a wave against peaceful change. Substantial political reshuffling is imperative for any significant police reform or accountability to take place.

About the author

Ahmed Ali is an LLM Human Rights Law postgraduate at Cardiff University. He obtained his law degree at the same university and his current research concentrates on external intervention and interference within the framework of self-determination and international humanitarian law.


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