Warning: Some of the descriptions of torture in the following article are graphic and include details relating to sexual violence.
By Qusay Omran
Something is rotten in the kingdom of Bahrain. In the years since the failed uprising of 2011, the prison population has more than tripled, and security forces continue to torment the kingdom’s majority-Shiite citizens with mass arrests. As part of a systematic crackdown on dissent, large groups of mostly Shiite civilians are arrested on a regular basis, accused of being secret agents of Iran or members of hidden ‘terror’ cells. In March of this year, the government arrested 116 civilians for alleged ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a mere two months after another mass arrest of 47 people on similar terrorist-related charges.
Bahraini courts find it highly convenient to accuse those who oppose the regime with terrorism and of allegiance to Iran because such charges undermine the credibility of the accused and frame the arrest as an issue of national defense. Labeling dissenters as terrorists serves to pre-empt the efforts of human rights advocates to guarantee the accused a right to a fair trial, since few lawyers are willing to risk their careers in defense of alleged terrorists. Prison guards and interrogators take charges of terrorism as an indication to take all measures necessary to extract confessions and punish the accused. This torture and brutal treatment of prisoners is perhaps the most devastating consequence of Bahrain’s broken judicial system.
One of the most egregious examples of the pattern of a mass arrest followed by false charges and subsequent torture came in the beginning of the government crackdown against the revolution in 2011. For treating injured protesters in the national Salmaniya hospital, the government arrested a number of Bahraini medical professionals and charged them with occupying the hospital and possession of weapons. After a trial by military tribunal, many of the accused medics received sentences of up to 15 years in prison. According to one doctor, officials handcuffed, blindfolded, and electrocuted her in an attempt to secure a false confession before the trial. Another doctor was forced to sign a confession claiming that she stole bags of blood from the hospital’s supplies in order to fake protesters’ injuries. Both of these doctors, as well as several other victims of torture, have said that they were sexually harassed and threatened with rape during their interrogations.
In more recent memory, allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in Bahrain continue to catch the attention of human rights groups. The arrests and tortures of children are some of the most astounding accounts. On February 14, 2017, for example, a 16-year old boy was arrested and charged with illegal gathering and possession of a Molotov cocktail. During his arrest, police officers reportedly hit his mother with a gun and slapped his sister in the face after she resisted them, spraying her with pepper spray when she persisted. After his arrest, his family was denied contact with him, and they have expressed concern that he is not receiving treatment for his sickle cell anemia.
Another 16 year-old boy, arrested on September 27, 2016, was held in detention for a month without a trial. In this time, the boy claimed that he was subject to torture, citing one particular incident where he was forced to strip naked, burned with a cigarette lighter, electrocuted, and beaten in the face and abdomen in an effort by officials to extract a confession of guilt. Like the medical professionals cited earlier, this boy said he was sexually harassed and threatened with rape as well.
An emerging pattern from such stories is one of a continuous and aggressive government crackdown designed to intimidate and suppress any opposition to the regime. Not only have the authorities punished good-willed physicians for treating pro-democracy protesters shot and beaten by military-trained police, but they have also continued to target and terrorize young Bahrainis as a means of suppressing any future inclinations to protest injustice.
The tactics employed by the Bahraini regime in their callous mission to silence the citizenry has at times extended beyond torture. On October 30, 2017, a group of seven Bahrainis were sentenced to life imprisonment and, for good measure, stripped of their nationalities for allegedly forming a terrorist group in coordination with Iran and Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and para-military group in Lebanon. The court refused to address allegations of torture and forced confessions from the accused, damning them to a lifetime in chains in a nation they can no longer declare their own. The court adjourned as the sun set on the kingdom, but it returned the next day, October 31, to hand down the same punishment to ten more individuals, accusing them of associating with terrorists and “possessing a sword.”
Beyond arbitrary denials of the basic human right of nationality, government authorities have demonstrated a disregard even for Bahrainis’ right to live. On November 6, 2014, prisoners at the country’s infamous Jau prison reportedly heard a man named Hasan al-Shaikh screaming for hours as he was physically beaten until he died, falling silent. Guards then removed his body, and witnesses to the murder were allegedly beaten as well. After a sloppy investigation, the government declared that al-Shaikh’s death “may have occurred under dubious circumstances,” and sentenced three officers to five years in prison. In early 2016, an appeals court reduced their sentences to two years, effectively setting them free later that year. Al-Shaikh’s murder is only one of several instances of Bahraini prisoners dying while in detention, and the government’s apathetic reaction comes as no surprise to their heartbroken families.
Perhaps the most outrageous example of the Bahraini government’s disregard for human life came in January of last year, when three Shiite men—Ali al-Singace, 21, Abbas al-Samea, 27, and Sami Mushaima, 42—were sentenced to be executed for allegedly murdering three police officers and, predictably, for organizing a terrorist group. In the lead-up to the trial, the families of the accused reported that the men described beatings, electrocution, and deprivation of sleep, food, and water by prison guards in an effort to force them to sign confessions. The court, however, claimed to have found no evidence of coercion in the confessions, and on that basis the men were executed by firing squad within a week of the sentencing. As if the death sentence were not enough, the authorities also stripped the men of their Bahraini nationalities just before their death. The men died stateless on the soil their grandfathers’ grandfathers had tilled and sowed.
At a time when the international community is outraged at the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi under what appears to be a direct order from the Saudi Crown Prince, it seems fitting to ask that some attention be paid to the human rights abuses described above by the kingdom of Bahrain, one of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies. No article about Bahrain is complete without a note that it hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and the United States’ continued and silent military presence only serves to enable the Bahraini government’s mistreatment of its citizens. If the United States can demand better from Saudi Arabia for the cold-blooded murder of a journalist, surely it can also pay attention to where it docks it ships and demand that Bahrain be better to its people.
Qusay is a sophomore in Berkeley College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.