Executions stoke unrest in Bahrain as fears grow

Executions stoke unrest in Bahrain as fears grow
5 min read
26 January, 2017
Convicts condemned to death by confessions obtained under torture have little chance of reprieve, though further executions could ignite Bahrain's tinder-box, reports Daniel Wickham.
Bahrain is at risk of further sectarian unrest if more executions go ahead [Getty]

Protests have erupted in Bahrain after three men convicted of carrying out a bomb attack were executed amid allegations their confessions were extracted under torture.

The executions marked the kingdom's first use of capital punishment since 2010, provoking outcry from human rights groups who say the prisoners did not receive a fair trial.

The resulting demonstrations have seen riot police deployed in villages across the country, dispersing crowds of protesters with tear gas and shotgun pellets. Activists warn the unrest could escalate if the government goes through with the execution of two other nationals, also on death row for their alleged role in a separate attack on security forces.

"There's a lot of anger and there's a lot of frustration," says Maryam al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini human rights defender and co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

"Pretty much anything can happen. It could completely blow up."

Political turmoil is not new to Bahrain. In early 2011, mass pro-democracy protests led by the country's Shia majority broke out, prompting a violent crackdown by the Sunni-dominated monarchy. More than 100 people have been killed since then, mostly at the hands of the country's internal security apparatus.

Pretty much anything can happen. It could completely blow up

Fringe anti-government groups have also carried out a string of bombings against security forces, the deadliest of which took the lives of three police officers - one of them an Emirati citizen - in March 2014. Bahrain says the prisoners convicted of the killings and put to death this month were part of Saraya al-Ashtar, the underground militant faction responsible for the attack.

The executed men - Abbas al-Samea, Sami Mushaima and Ali al-Singace - were all relatives of jailed leaders from the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, an opposition group committed to establishing a republic in Bahrain.

The three strongly denied involvement in the bombing and allegedly confessed under extreme torture.

One of the prisoners, Abbas, a 27-year-old PE teacher and aspiring photojournalist, was arrested three hours after the attack took place. Activists say he was at school at the time of the explosion.

According to testimony obtained by human rights groups, Abbas was detained at the General Directorate of Criminal Investigations (CID), a facility notorious for its abusive treatment of prisoners. He was then reportedly taken from room to room and subjected to different kinds of torture by his interrogators.  

In one room, it is claimed he was handcuffed, stripped naked and kicked repeatedly in the genitals. In another, five officers are said to have stood on his chest. He was also allegedly burnt with cigarettes, sexually assaulted and electrocuted. By the time the torture was over, his mother could barely identify him from a photo released by the Ministry of Interior.

Sami Mushaima, 42, described a similar ordeal at the CID.

He told Amnesty International his interrogators gave him electric shocks, knocked out his front teeth and anally raped him with an object. Despite being illiterate, Sami was forced to sign a confession admitting involvement in the bombing.

According to the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, the Court of Cassation - which upheld the death sentence verdict on January 9 - failed to properly investigate the defendants' allegations of torture.

Two UK government-supported Bahraini oversight agencies set up to deal with reports of abuse have also been accused of ignoring Abbas' claims, raising questions over their independence and effectiveness, as well as Britain's controversial role in assisting Bahrain's security and judicial institutions.

The UK is now facing growing calls from rights groups to suspend its support programme to Bahrain, which The Guardianreported is being bolstered by £2 million ($2.5m) this year.

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"The execution of these torture victims was made possible by various actors in Bahrain's criminal justice system, and the UK is providing assistance to all of them," said Maya Foa, the director of the human rights group Reprieve.

"It would be shameful if the UK continued to support Bahrain's security apparatus and Ministry of Interior in the face of such terrible abuses."

The blood of these men is on the hands of the US and UK governments just as much as Bahrain

Maryam al-Khawaja believes Britain and the United States - both close allies of the Bahraini monarchy - could have stopped the executions had they wanted to.

"I don't think it would have taken much more than a phone call," she says. "The blood of these men is on the hands of the US and UK governments just as much as Bahrain."

Khawaja says the executions were timed deliberately, however, to minimise international attention. "It happened six days from Trump's inauguration, during Obama's final days in office, and during Martin Luther King Jr Day weekend. The timing was definitely on purpose and planned."

Bahrain's authorities may also have felt a show of force was necessary after the January 1 attack on Jaw Prison, which marked a serious escalation in anti-government violence in Bahrain. According to the Ministry of Interior, gunmen armed with automatic rifles and pistols stormed the jail, killing a police officer and freeing ten inmates held on terrorism charges - none of whom have been re-captured.

Further violence now seems inevitable, with radical opposition factions promising retaliation for the executions and anti-government demonstrations continuing every day, often met with police repression. These events are "likely to reignite the protest movement in Bahrain", says Dr Christopher M Davidson, a lecturer at the University of Durham and author of several books on the Gulf monarchies.

Tensions could also escalate further if Bahrain decides to execute two other death row prisoners accused of killing a police officer in February 2014. According to Amnesty International, Hussain Ali Moosa and Mohamed Ramadhan were convicted after a "grossly unfair" trial which relied on confessions again obtained under torture, including the use of electric shocks.

Brian Dooley, the director of the US-based NGO Human Rights First, says Britain and the United States need to take a harder line against executions in Bahrain, or else these two men will meet the same fate as Abbas, Sami and Ali.

"Their executions weren't inevitable, but Bahrain's allies didn't do much publicly to stop them," he says. "Without a stronger reaction from London and Washington, there are likely to be more."

Daniel Wickham is a human rights activist. Follow him on Twitter @DanielWickham93