Manama, Bahrain - A week ago, Ali al-Singace, 16, was found tied up and half-naked in a garage in Sanabis, just outside the Bahraini capital; he told neighbours that he’d been beaten, stabbed and sexually assaulted by a group of men, and filed a police report later that afternoon.
Within a matter of days, Singace was back at the police station, but this time as a suspect, not a victim: Prosecutors accused him of filing a false police report. He was accused of inflicting knife wounds on himself, a conclusion attributed to a government doctor who conducted a medical examination.
“Yesterday [Tuesday] we tried to have him examined again, to have another doctor review his case, and they refused the request,” said Faten al-Haddad, Singace’s lawyer.
Rights groups here say that the case raises new questions about the government’s willingness to reform its legal system. Singace says he has been abducted several times before, because he refused to work as a police informant, and that the men who seized him last week were plainclothes detectives. “The police didn’t explain how he managed to tie himself up,” one activist said sarcastically.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, released in November, catalogued dozens of problems with Bahrain’s legal system and security forces. Prisoners were routinely held incommunicado, and denied access to their lawyers and families. Torture was routine. Military courts convicted hundreds of people in trials which did not meet basic standards of due process, according to groups like Amnesty International.
The government argues that it has fulfilled most of the report’s suggestions for fixing those problems. “A lot of the major, major ones have been implemented, and you have a lot of them with the ministry of interior, the ministry of justice,” said Abdelaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, an official from Bahrain’s information affairs authority.
But rights groups and lawyers frequently complain about the government’s handling of cases like Singace’s, and that of Abdullah Fardan and Hassan al-Jabber.
Fardan, a photographer, and Jabber, an activist, were arrested on February 14 for participating in a small demonstration in Manama with Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. They were held for nearly 45 days, the maximum allowed under Bahraini law, and then simply released without any charges. Lawyers and activists here said they were arrested simply to send a message.
And a new report from Human Rights Watch, released on Wednesday, concludes that Bahrain’s government has ignored “critical recommendations” from the report, notably the ones dealing with “accountability for torture and relief for people wrongly imprisoned.”
“Hundreds of people remain behind bars solely for speaking out and demanding a change of government,” said Joe Stock, the deputy Middle East director at HRW. “And it seems that no high-ranking officials have been investigated for their roles in rampant torture or unlawful killings.”
‘Cameras all over’
Bahrain says it has made progress to curtail what the BICI report called “widespread” torture committed by the Bahraini security forces, partly by issuing a new code of conduct, and partly by installing new closed-circuit video cameras in police stations. The interior ministry last week took journalists on a guided tour of the police station in Hoora, a busy neighbourhood in the capital, where officers were eager to show off interrogation rooms recently fitted with the recording equipment.
“There are cameras all over the police station,” said Ghazi al-Eisan, the head of operations for the capital governorate, “so from the moment someone enters the police station, they are on camera.”
But Bahrain’s riot police, the ones who respond to protests in the villages, do not operate out of the regular police stations - and their bases will not be equipped with cameras, according to al-Eisan. Activists and rights groups say protesters are often tortured on riot police bases before being dropped off at regular police stations.
“If it's happening, it shouldn't happen,” said John Timoney, the former US police chief hired to consult with Bahrain’s police force, though he acknowledged it may happen in certain circumstances. “They should be taken to the nearest police station.”
Similarly, the government has begun to review some of those verdicts, either in civilian courts or before a “supreme judicial committee” appointed by the king. Only a handful have actually had their convictions dropped, though, and dozens more are still waiting to have their appeals heard in civilian courts. Dozens of activists remain jailed for political offences, according to rights groups.
“We're very disappointed that so many people who were tried before the military courts have not had their verdicts and sentences reviewed yet,” said Said Boumedouha, a researcher with Amnesty International.
‘Nothing more than a political issue’
One of the highest-profile cases is the so-called “medics trial,” an issue which has prompted rare criticism of the Bahraini government by even its Western supporters.
Dozens of medical workers were arrested last year, and 20 of them were convicted by a military court and sentenced to jail terms of between five and 15 years. They were charged with attempting to overthrow the government; rights groups say they were prosecuted simply for treating wounded protesters and taking part in demonstrations. Their cases are now being retried in a civilian court.
The public prosecutor announced earlier this month that he would only present evidence against five of the 20 medics, in effect clearing the other fifteen. He did not explain the about-face; some of the accused medics say it was to avoid an embarrassing trial. “The witnesses only mentioned the names of five doctors,” said Rula al-Saffar, a nurse who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Even the evidence against the remaining five is flimsy, according to lawyers.
“One witness, a Pakistani man, said two doctors were discussing a plan to hold Asian workers hostage in the hospital,” said a lawyer who has worked on the case. “We asked him, how did you understand the conversation between them? And he said they were speaking Urdu,” a language neither doctor speaks.
In any event, the justice minister seemed to reverse the public prosecutor’s decision last week, or at least undermine it: He said at a press conference that all 20 medics would remain on trial; the government would not formally drop charges against any of them.
“You will still be accused until you receive your acquittal from the court, and this is an issue that will be left to the court itself,” he said. “We will not give any kind of direction in this case.”
The medics themselves have long argued that the entire case against them is political, and say the latest confusion over their trial only strengthens their case.
“We won’t accept it, dividing the cases,” said Dr Nabeel Tammam, an ear, nose and throat surgeon and one of 28 medics charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies. “If the decision is already made up... then this is not a legal issue, it’s nothing more than a political issue.”