SHAFAQNA – Britain’s close Gulf ally Bahrain has been torturing detainees during interrogation, a leading human rights watchdog says, undermining UK government claims that the island state has reformed its security forces and improved accountability.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals the same sort of abuses by Bahraini personnel that were documented by an official commission of inquiry set up after popular protests against the Sunni-dominated government in 2011.
Accounts of the mistreatment of prisoners will bolster claims by Bahraini opposition figures that Britain is turning a blind eye to unacceptable practices, three weeks after the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, inaugurated a controversial new British naval base near the capital, Manama.
HRW interviewed 10 detainees who said they had experienced coercive interrogations at the interior ministry’s criminal investigations directorate (CID) and in police stations since 2012, and four former inmates of Jaw prison, who said they had been tortured as recently as March.
Mohamed Bader, who was arrested on his return from Syria in 2014, told HRW he was punched, kicked, stripped naked and blindfolded and handcuffed throughout his questioning. He signed a confession under torture.
Others described being subjected to electric shocks; suspension in painful positions, including by their wrists; forced standing; extreme cold and sexual abuse. Six said CID interrogators boasted of their reputation for inflicting pain on detainees.
Interviews were conducted by telephone and Skype because researchers were not granted visas to visit the country.
Activists say Hammond cancelled a planned meeting with opposition figures before meeting his Bahraini counterpart. Criticism has also mounted over the case of Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, the country’s predominantly Shia opposition movement, who was sentenced to four years in prison in June and has been adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience.
UK adds to condemnation of Bahrain over jailing of Shia opposition leader
Nabeel Rajab, another high-profile democratic opposition figure and human rights activist, is subject to a travel ban.
“I’ll show you why Wefaq calls Bahrain the capital of torture,” one former detainee quoted an interrogator as telling him. Another said a CID officer held something to his nose and told him it was “the blood of people who don’t cooperate”.
Britain’s argument is that Bahrain is not perfect but is following the recommendations of the Bahrain independent investigation commission (Bici) in taking steps to reform its police force, judicial system and prison service. UK policy is “to support Bahrain in its return to a stable and reformist state with a good human rights record,” the Foreign Office says.
Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The claims of Bahrain and its allies that authorities have ended torture in detention are simply not credible. All the available evidence supports the conclusion that these new institutions have not effectively tackled what the Bici report described as a ‘culture of impunity’ among security forces.”
Britain has taken the lead internationally in arguing that Bahrain has reformed its security forces and accountability mechanisms, but HRW calls the operation of those mechanisms “seriously flawed”. It recommends that the UK government suspend funding for security service reform.
The UK insists strong trade and investment ties and close security and intelligence cooperation are helping reform and promoting stability in the Gulf. Its close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also come under close scrutiny in recent months, in part because of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and increasing awareness of human rights abuses.
King Hamad was on a private visit to the UK last week.
In 2012 and 2013, Bahrain postponed indefinitely the scheduled visit to the country of the UN special rapporteur on torture. Britain has not publicly called for it to take place. Bahrain often describes opposition activists as terrorists and claims they are working in the service of Iran.