Autopsy finds torture behind Bahrain drowning

Report exclusively obtained by Al Jazeera says 23-year-old had been electrically tortured before drowning in January.

Yousef Mowali funeral
Mourners prepare to bury the body of Yousef Mowali in Muharraq, Bahrain. [Mazen Mahdi/EPA]

On most mornings Yousef Mowali would leave his home near Bahrain’s international airport to go for a stroll. The 23-year-old had been diagnosed with schizophrenia a few years earlier and liked walking, both for exercising and relaxing.

On January 11, Mowali left for his morning walk and never returned.

Police said they found Mowali’s body floating in the water on January 13 in the Amwaj area, not far from his family’s home in Muharraq. A state doctor reported the cause of death as drowning and ruled out signs of violence.

However, Al Jazeera has exclusively obtained a report from a second autopsy performed by an independent forensic pathologist that concludes Mowali was electrically tortured and unconscious when he drowned.

If true, Mowali’s death would be the first of a person in police custody since the government promised reforms, following the release of a report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which looked at the early months of unrest surrounding last year’s pro-democracy uprising.

The government-sponsored commission found that Bahrain’s Interior Ministry and national security agency employed “a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture” during the early months of the crackdown in 2011.

BICI also reported five deaths as a result of police torture. Mowali’s death could be the sixth – and an indication that the mistreatment of prisoners in Bahrain has not stopped, despite the government’s promises.

Official statement

Hours after Mowali left for his usual 30-minute stroll, family members said they went to the local police station to report that he was missing. Soon after filing a missing persons report, Ahmad Abbas Mowali, Mowali’s father, said they were told he was in the custody of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and would be released later that day.

Mowali told Al Jazeera that he and his wife were shocked when they learned Yousef, the oldest of the couple’s three children, had been detained. “He never went to demonstrations or to Lulu [Pearl] roundabout,” Ahmad Mowali said, referring to the epicentre of the 2011 uprising.

He said his son spent most of his time at home, and was interested in reading and religion, but not politics.In November, Yousef Mowali went with his parents on the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and in December, visited family members in Kuwait.

He had been receiving medical care for his condition, the family said, and was showing signs of improvement.

Mowali at Hajj in 2011 [courtesy of the Mowali family]

After being told the son was in police custody, Ahmad Mowali said he became increasingly scared for his son as each minute passed. “It happened to a lot of people,” he said. “[The police] take them, they kill them and they throw them out.”

Two days after Yousef Mowali left home, police say they received a call at 4:52pm that a dead body was in the water in the Amwaj area. His uncle, who had been regularly patrolling the area looking for his nephew since his disappearance, approached the flashing lights of police cars before phoning his brother with the news.

“Then they took him to the mortuary,” Ahmad Mowali said. “We went (and) there were a lot of policemen … they didn’t allow us to see him.”

That evening, the public prosecutor’s forensic pathologist conducted an autopsy at Bahrain’s Salmaniya hospital. The doctor found that Mowali drowned, listing only a few marks on the body stating: “…there is no evidence of suspicious injury that could have been caused from criminal violence.”

The Ministry of Information released a statement that the body was that of Yousef Ahmad Abbas (Mowali is not the family’s official surname), also noting that he suffered from “psychological problems” according to the family’s initial missing person report. 

At the mortuary Ahmad Mowali said the police confirmed that it was his son who had drowned. He insisted on seeing the body and told police that so many security officers were unnecessary if their story was indeed true – that no crime had been committed.

Signs of torture

Ahmad Mowali said the police told him to sign a death certificate stating that his son had drowned. “We refused to sign the death certificate without seeing the body,” he said.

The next day, he returned with a lawyer and was allowed to see his son’s body. “That’s when we saw the body; we saw a lot of signs of torture,” he said.

Nawaf al-Sayed, the family’s lawyer, told Al Jazeera that, within days, he submitted a request on behalf of the family for a second autopsy from either an independent Bahraini doctor, or one from an international organisation who would be willing to take up the case.

Both proposals were rejected, but al-Sayed said he was given verbal permission by the public prosecutor for the family to examine the body, to answer any questions into Yousef Mowali’s death, after they had officially received his corpse.

It was then that the family contacted The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and the Denmark-based organisation agreed to send Dr Sebnem Korur Fincanci, a professor in forensic medicine at the University of Istanbul with more than 20 years experience examining torture cases. Dr Fincanci entered Bahrain as a tourist on January 20.

The next day, the family signed the death certificate and received the body in the early morning. It was taken to a small room in a Muharraq cemetery, where bodies are washed in preparation for Islamic burials.

It’s there where Dr Fincanci, dressed as a local woman to avoid the attention of the authorities, conducted the second autopsy of Yousef Mowali.

A second autopsy

The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims
  • Umbrella organisation for more than 140 indepedent organisations in over 70 countries
  • Health professionals began loosely organising in 1970s to support torture victims in Pinochet’s Chile
  • Officially founded in 1985 by Dr, Inge Genefke
  • Published alternative autopsy into death of Khaled Said who was beaten to death by police in Egypt in June, 2010
  • Over 100,000 torture survivors treated in their member centres each year

Dr Fincanci told Al Jazeera that, before her trip, she researched the types of torture that had been reported in Bahrain, including electrical torture, by studying reports produced by the UN and human rights organisations about the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners.

After examining the body, Dr Fincanci said that wounds on the foot, leg and arm were “obvious” and criticised the first autopsy report for failing to mention them.

She also said the state’s doctor only dissected some of the organs, which were not in line with the “standard autopsy protocols”.

“I immediately realised that the wounds could easily be from electrical torture, so I collected skin samples, thinking about electrical torture, but I wasn’t sure, of course, because the body was a bit decomposed,” Dr Fincanci said.

Dr Fincanci told Al Jazeera that the circumstances of her autopsy were not ideal. She is used to working with proper equipment in a medical facility aided by assistants. But she said that the tests she did in labs back in Istanbul left no doubt about her findings.

Back in Istanbul, Dr Fincanci consulted other forensic doctors, including Dr Fikri Oztop, a specialist in wounds resulting from electrical torture. The conclusion was that, not only had Yousef Mowali been electrically tortured, but they found, by also examining samples from the lungs, he had been unconscious when he drowned.

Dr Fincanci’s report reads:

In conclusion, Mr Yousif Ahmed Abbas Mohammed’s death is attributed primarily to drowning due to the lung changes observed microscopically. Skin changes observed both during external examination and confirmed microscopically on the slides prepared from the samples collected were highly consistent with electrocution, although could not be stated to contribute to his death directly, however supported allegations of torture in custody and could most probably lead to unconsciousness.

Mr Yousif Ahmed Abbas Mohammed had been a competent swimmer, according to the account of the family members, and drowning as the cause of death with findings of electrocution on the foot, leg and arm might support of [sic] being unconscious when he was in the sea, and antemortem nature of abrasion on the left forearm supported this opinion.

The manner of death is therefore ruled as unnatural, and forced drowning.

Dr Fincanci, who has examined cases of electrical torture during military rule in Turkey in the 1980s and more recently from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq during the US occupation, explained to Al Jazeera that electricity could easily lead to unconsciousness, especially if a high current were to be used.

Click on the image for the full rejoinder from Bahrain government

In a statement to Al Jazeera, the IRCT said: “Key priorities for the IRCT are justice for torture victims and an end to impunity for torturers. Forensic documentation, such as this autopsy, is crucial in proving torture took place and thus in achieving these goals.”

On Monday, the family submitted Dr Fincanci’s autopsy report to the office of Bahrain’s public prosecutor, to be considered as part of the investigation into Yousef Mowali’s death.

The investigation, which the family demanded through official channels soon after his death, is still in the preliminary stages, where it has yet to be decided whether or not there is enough evidence to take it to court. 

Al Jazeera received on Friday a response in the form of a letter of objection to this story, which was originally published on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the family pushes ahead, unrelenting, in their quest for answers.

“We want to reach the truth,” Ahmad Mowali said. “What happened? Why did they take my son and how did he die?

“We need justice.”

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage

Source: Al Jazeera