Coerced Confessions, ‘Confidential Sources’
(Beirut) – A criminal court in Manama on October 30, 2017, sentenced three relatives of a prominent exiled Bahraini human rights defender to three years in prison on terrorism-related charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The judicial process was marred by due process violations and allegations of ill treatment and coerced confessions. All three will appeal the verdicts, a relative told Human Rights Watch.
In March, authorities arrested and subsequently charged the three relatives of Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, the London-based advocacy director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, seemingly in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the ruling Al Khalifa family and government policies. The government stripped Sayed Ahmed of his Bahraini citizenship in 2015. All three relatives were prosecuted for allegedly planting fake explosive devices, “with the intention of spreading fear and terror,” on two occasions in January 2017. The prosecution presented no evidence connecting the three to these alleged incidents that the defendants were able to challenge, relying instead on “confidential sources” and confessions the defendants claim were coerced.
“Today’s guilty verdict on dubious charges against three relatives of a human rights defender are testimony to Bahrain’s comprehensive campaign to muzzle dissent,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Targeting family members to silence activists amounts to collective punishment, and Bahrain’s judiciary should correct this injustice upon appeal.”
Masked security officials arrested Sayed Ahmed’s brother-in-law, Sayed Nazar al-Wadaei, 18, and his cousin, Mahmood Marzooq Mansoor, 30, on March 2, Sayed Ahmed told Human Rights Watch. On March 5, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) under the Interior Ministry summoned Hajar Mansoor Hassan, 49, Sayed Ahmed’s mother-in-law and Sayed Nazar’s mother, for questioning and subsequently arrested her.
The public prosecutor’s investigation record, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, says that Hassan and Mansoor repudiated confessions they made during interrogation at the CID, claiming interrogators coerced them. The CID forensic examinations report failed to establish any physical evidence linking the three defendants to the alleged mock explosive objects.
All three defendants alleged ill treatment during interrogations. Hassan and Sayed Nazar told a family member they were subjected to prolonged painful forced standing positions, Sayed Nazar and Mansoor told family members that they were subjected to frequent beatings. None of the defendants had access to a lawyer during CID interrogations, and only Hassan had a lawyer during the public prosecution investigations.
During a visit with a family member on March 22, Sayed Nazar said interrogators blindfolded him, deprived him of sleep for two days, and forced him to stand for two days while frequently beating him. He said that interrogators mostly questioned him about his brother-in-law’s work in London, beating him every time he responded that Sayed Ahmed worked for a newspaper.
In a separate phone call with Sayed Ahmed on April 26, Sayed Nazar said interrogators repeatedly questioned him about Sayed Ahmed’s activities, and cursed and beat him. Sayed Ahmed said that interrogators told Sayed Nazar, “You are from a dirty family,” threatening to go after the whole family, including Sayed Ahmed.
Hassan told Human Rights Watch during a phone call on October 19 that Mansoor had informed her during a phone conversation in the first phase of his detention that interrogating officers beat and cursed him.
On March 9, Hassan’s lawyer submitted a complaint about ill-treatment on her behalf, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), under the Interior Ministry, which investigates police misconduct. The complaint said CID officers threatened her and subjected her to prolonged interrogations, sometimes exceeding 10 hours, and forced standing between March 5 and 8 to extract a confession.
Hassan told Human Rights Watch the forced standing on the first day of interrogations caused her to faint and that she was taken to a hospital. The SIU conducted an investigation with Sayed Ahmed’s relatives in the presence of their lawyer. Sayed Ahmed said the SIU informed Hassan’s lawyer in September that her case was closed, but did not provide Hassan or her lawyer with a copy of the investigation or a reason why it was closed.
On August 10, Sayed Ahmed submitted a complaint to the Interior Ministry Ombudsman Office on Hassan’s behalf, stating that a prison officer threatened to punish Hassan unless she withdrew a complaint she had lodged on August 9 or 10 to a visiting Ombudsman team. In the complaint, Hassan said that authorities prevented her from visiting Sayed Nazar, her son, for months. On October 8, the Ombudsman responded to Sayed Ahmed stating that no measures would be taken against the guard because she did not act on her threats.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed copies of medical exams by the Directorate of Forensic Science Evidence, as well as the CID forensic investigation of two mock explosive objects. The medical reports were inconclusive regarding multiple marks and scratches on the defendants. The forensic investigation, including DNA samples and fingerprints of the defendants, failed to establish a link between the defendants and the mock explosive objects that police say they found.
The public prosecutor’s investigation record from March 8 and 16 say that Mansoor and Hassan retracted confessions they made during their earlier separate CID interrogations. They both denied any connection to charges against them, stating that they had been coerced into signing the confessions without being able to read them.
Although Sayed Nazar did not formally retract his confession, he told a family member during a detention visit on March 22 that the charges against him were “fabricated” and that he had confessed out of fear and due to beatings by interrogators.
The prosecutor’s investigation record states that police used “confidential sources” to prove the culpability of the three defendants without indicating the affiliations of those sources or reasons for considering them credible. Sayed Ahmed said that defense lawyers received no response when they questioned the officer who testified about his confidential sources.
Bahrain’s 2006 Law for Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts, amended in 2014, allows authorities to hold suspects in pretrial detention for up to six months. The law also allows detention for up to 28 days without charge or initiating an investigation.
The Ombudsman Office was established in February 2012, based on recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which was established to investigate allegations of human rights abuses related to the February-March 2011 violent suppression of anti-government protests. The Ombudsman is to receive complaints from detainees or their families and conduct prison visits. A Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was established in the Office of the Public Prosecutor to determine criminal liability of officials in cases of alleged abuse of detainees.
Human Rights Watch concluded in a November 2015 report that neither institution has operated transparently or independently to prevent abuse and hold officials accountable.
“The establishment of these oversight bodies may have appeased Bahrain’s international allies, but they certainly have not reversed the culture of impunity enjoyed by Bahraini authorities,” Stork said. “Instead of delivering justice, Bahrain’s courts are being used as a political tool to persecute vocal critics of the country’s government and ruling family.”