Bahrain experienced an acute human rights crisis in which at least 47 people were killed, including five members of the security forces and five people who died in custody as a result of torture. Security forces used excessive force against peaceful protesters and detained hundreds of people, including prisoners of conscience. Many detainees were tortured and otherwise ill-treated. Hundreds of civilian detainees received unfair trials before military courts; leading opposition activists were sentenced to up to life imprisonment. People who demonstrated against the government, including students, were dismissed from their jobs and from university. An independent inquiry by international experts appointed by the King confirmed the serious human rights violations and called for independent investigations, accountability and other reforms. Five people were sentenced to death; two had their sentences reduced at appeal. There were no executions.
Mass pro-reform protests began on 14 February. Most demonstrators were from the majority Shi’a community, who believe they are discriminated against by the ruling Sunni minority. The protests centred on Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama, where a protest camp was established. Police and other security forces dispersed the protesters on 17 February using excessive force. Two days later, protesters re-established the camp and became more vociferous in their calls for change. On 23 February, the King pardoned 23 leading opposition activists, detained since August 2010, and more than 200 other prisoners and detainees.
On 13 March, a small group of anti-government protesters were reported to have attacked Asian migrant workers in Manama, causing two deaths and injuries to others. On 15 March, as demonstrations and strikes continued, the King declared a three-month state of emergency. This came a day after around 1,200 Saudi Arabian troops in armoured vehicles had arrived in the country to buttress Bahrain’s security forces. By the end of March, the main protests had been crushed, although sporadic protests in predominantly Shi’a villages continued for the rest of the year. The King lifted the state of emergency on 1 June.
In late June, the King appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), comprising five international legal and human rights experts, to investigate alleged human rights violations committed in connection with the protests. It reported to the King on 23 November. The government also initiated a “national dialogue” with the parliamentary opposition, businesses, NGO representatives and others; however, the largest Shi’a political opposition association, al-Wefaq, whose 18 members of parliament had resigned in February in protest at police brutality, withdrew after two weeks complaining that unacceptable conditions had been imposed.Top of page
The resort to unwarranted violence by security forces in response to the peaceful protest on 14 and 15 February resulted in the deaths of two people. On 17 February, riot police and other security forces destroyed the protest camp established at Pearl Roundabout. They used tear gas, beat people with batons and fired shotguns and rubber bullets at protesters at close range; five people were killed and many others were injured. The security forces also impeded and assaulted medical workers who sought to assist the wounded.
On 16 March, the security forces launched a concerted crackdown. Backed by helicopters and tanks, they stormed the Pearl Roundabout and Financial Harbour areas. They evicted the protesters using shotguns, rubber bullets and tear gas, causing deaths and injuries to protesters. They also took control of Manama’s main Salmaniya Medical Complex, detaining doctors and other medical workers they accused of supporting the protesters. In response to the continuing protests in predominantly Shi’a villages, the security forces sometimes responded with excessive force. By the end of the year, at least 47 people had died in all the protests, including five police officers.
More than 1,000 people were arrested in connection with the protests; some were Sunni Muslims but the vast majority were Shi’a Muslims. Most were arrested in March and April, many in pre-dawn raids at their homes, often by armed, masked security officers who did not produce arrest warrants and often assaulted those they arrested and, sometimes, their relatives. Detainees were usually taken to undisclosed locations and held incommunicado for up to several weeks, during which they were interrogated and, in many cases, allegedly tortured and otherwise ill-treated. Their whereabouts frequently remained unknown until they were brought to trial.
Hundreds of people were prosecuted for offences allegedly committed in connection with the protests, including political opposition activists, medical professionals, teachers, students and human rights activists. Many faced grossly unfair trials before a special military court – the National Safety Court (NSC) – set up under the state of emergency. Those convicted and sentenced to imprisonment included prisoners of conscience. The BICI reported that an estimated 300 people were convicted on charges relating to their exercise of freedom of expression. Others were convicted even though they repudiated “confessions” they said had been extracted under torture; the court did not investigate these allegations. In some cases, the NSC refused defence requests to call witnesses; in many, defence lawyers were denied access to their clients until the trial began and so had inadequate time to prepare their defence. Initially, appeals against NSC judgements were heard by a similarly deficient NSC appeal court.
Following wide criticism of the NSC, on 29 June the King decreed that all ongoing cases being examined by the NSC and linked to the February-March protests would be transferred to civilian courts, but on 18 August he decreed that the NSC would continue to try the most serious – felony – cases. However, all NSC judgements were made subject to appeal before a civilian court, including those already upheld by the NSC appeal court. In September, a military court sentenced 20 health professionals to up to 15 years in prison on charges that included occupying a government hospital, possession of weapons and stealing medicine. The cases were sent for appeal before a civilian court before the end of the year.
By early October, all cases had been transferred to civilian courts and the NSC was no longer functioning.
Many of the people detained in March and April were taken to police stations and to the Criminal Investigations Department in Manama, where they were held incommunicado and interrogated by members of the National Security Agency and other security forces. Many alleged that they were beaten, made to stand for long periods, given electric shocks, deprived of sleep and threatened with rape. Many said they were held incommunicado for weeks after their interrogation ended.
The authorities failed to conduct independent investigations into most of these allegations. The NSC also failed to adequately investigate defendants’ allegations of torture in pre-trial detention and accepted contested “confessions” as evidence of guilt. However, in November, shortly before the BICI presented its report and in anticipation of its findings, the government said it would amend the Penal Code to criminalize torture and that 20 members of the security forces were on trial in connection with allegations of torture of detainees, deaths in custody as a result of mistreatment, and unlawful killings of civilians. Full details of these prosecutions had not been disclosed by the end of the year.
Five people detained in connection with the protests died in custody as a result of torture. Those responsible for their torture were said to be among the 20 security officers facing prosecution at the end of the year.
More than 2,000 workers from the public sector and more than 2,400 from the private sector were dismissed from their jobs for participating in or supporting the protests. They included university lecturers, school teachers, medical doctors and nurses. Almost all were Shi’a Muslims. In late November, the BICI reported that 1,682 dismissed public sector employees had been reinstated.Top of page
The NSC sentenced five people to death after convicting them of killings committed during the protests. The NSC appeal court confirmed two of the sentences and commuted two others; the fifth case was awaiting appeal. The five were the first Bahraini nationals to be sentenced to death for more than 10 years. One foreign national sentenced to death in 2010 was still awaiting execution. There were no executions.
In its substantial report published on 23 November, the BICI said it had examined more than 8,000 complaints; interviewed more than 5,000 individuals, including male and female detainees; and visited various prisons, detention centres and the Salmaniya Medical Complex in Manama. It confirmed that many detainees had been tortured by security officials who believed they could act with impunity; that police and other security forces had repeatedly used excessive force against protesters, resulting in unlawful killings; and that legal proceedings before the NSC had been seriously defective. Among its recommendations, the BICI called for all allegations of torture to be independently investigated, for those responsible for abuses to be held criminally liable whatever their rank, and for the release of all those imprisoned on account of their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. The King and government undertook to implement the BICI’s recommendations.Top of page
At least 200 men were arrested on 2 February when police raided a party in al-Muharraq believed to involve gay men after neighbours complained about noise. Most were released without charge but 50 were prosecuted, 30 on charges of prostitution and other illicit acts. They were sentenced in March to prison terms of up to six months. The High Criminal Court of Appeal confirmed the sentences in December; by then all had already been released.Top of page