‘Sham reforms’: UK-funded watchdog in Bahrain fails to investigate torture allegations

© Reuters
British tax payers are spending millions bankrolling a Bahraini police watchdog that failed to investigate torture allegations regarding a young political activist on death row in the Gulf state.

The funding forms part of a broader £2.1 million (US$3 million) scheme to improve Bahrain’s criminal justice system and was sparked by Britain’s close strategic ties to the kingdom. 

Since Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on the Arab Spring protests of 2011, human rights groups have expressed concern over its security services’ use of violence and torture.

Those with concerns about detainees’ treatment in Bahrain have been encouraged by the British government to contact the Gulf state’s police ombudsman. But the British-funded watchdog’s failure to investigate a complaint lodged by the family of a political activist on death row has brought its reputation into disrepute.

‘Beaten and humiliated’ 

Ramadan, a 32-year-old airport guard from Bahrain, says he suffered torture and physical abuse at the hands of Bahraini authorities as punishment for his peaceful political activities. He is currently on death row, awaiting execution.

Ramadan says he has been kept in solitary confinement and beaten in the genital area, where he previously needed surgery. His death sentence was upheld in November 2015 by Bahrain’s top court of appeal, and his torture allegations have been reportedly ignored.

An anti-government protester throws stones towards riot police during clashes at a roundabout where an anti-government protesters staged a sit-in on Budaiya highway, west of Manama, December 18, 2011. © Hamad I Mohammed

Although he was allegedly tortured in the early phase of his detention, Ramadan made no confessions. Nevertheless, a court accepted the confession of another defendant who was also sentenced to death. The man in question is believed to have been beaten until he gave Ramadan’s name and that of others he was linked to.

Ramadan’s wife, Zaynab Ebrahim, is calling on UK ministers to stop his execution and demand he be given a retrial.

“His hands were cuffed from behind and they beat him severely with the use of wires and punches and kicking in a random and sustained manner to coerce his confession,” she told the Guardian.

“[The jailers] also detained him in a very cold room and they refused to let him sit, and whenever he tried to sit he was beaten and humiliated. When he told them he cannot stand for long due to a back problem, they increased the pressure on him [to stand].”

Denial of torture

Bahrain’s Ministry of Information Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs said Ramadan was convicted of murdering a police officer and attempting to murder another using an explosive device.

The government department told RT that Ramadan was afforded all of his legal rights and given access to legal representation at each stage of his trial and appeal process. It also said the political activist’s guilty verdict followed comprehensive investigations and an in-depth trial in an independent court setting.

The Ministry of Information Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs went on to claim medical examinations carried out during Ramadan’s detention proved his torture claims to be false.

Last week, the European parliament passed a resolution urging Bahraini ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to grant a royal pardon to Ramadan. However, officials in Bahrain maintain they have no record of a complaint to the ombudsman and that allegations of ill treatment and torture are being falsely claimed by the defendant, his family and his lawyer.

The head of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, said the Gulf state had attempted to use “flawed institutions, paid for by the British taxpayer” to block the European resolution.

A riot police officer stands in front of protesters attempting to conduct a sit-in at a roundabout in Budaiya Highway west of Manama, December 15, 2011. © Hamad I Mohammed

“Britain has praised the ombudsman often in the past, and it will be a test of its human rights values if it continues to do so following the ombudsman’s defense of Mohammed Ramadan’s unjust sentence,” he told the Guardian.

Bahrain has been steadfast in its denial of Ramadan’s claims. Five UN human rights experts who raised the issue of Ramadan’s alleged torture and abuse were told by Bahrain in August 2014 that the claims were utterly false. Bahrain’s government has also so far refused to allow the UN special rapporteur on torture to visit the state.

‘Sham reforms’ 

Britain’s close ties to the kingdom of Bahrain are innately strategic. The Gulf kingdom has given the British government permission to build a naval base there – the first of its kind east of the Suez Canal in 45 years.

Labour justice spokesperson Andy Slaughter, who previously forced the government to withdraw its funding of Saudi prison reforms, sharply criticized Britain’s relations with Bahrain.

“Once again we see the British government giving aid and comfort to a regime with an appalling human rights record,” he said.

“The Bahraini authorities stand accused of abuse of legal process, including forced confessions and use of torture in the case of Mohammed Ramadan and many others.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned in January that credible allegations of abuse and torture of detainees in Bahrain undercuts claims that the state’s criminal justice system is improving.

The group said that new institutions in the Gulf state are “sham reforms,” and demanded to know how Bahrain and Britain’s governments could possibly claim they were protecting prisoners from abuse during interrogation.