Bahrain’s independent Ombudsman’s Office has issued its 2016-17 annual report detailing its performance over the past year in investigating complaints against detention personnel and other government departments.
Case studies of Ombudsman investigations illustrate the important role the Ombudsman Office is playing in bringing abuses and shortcomings to light. It was notable that many of the successful investigations relied heavily on CCTV evidence which on many occasions upheld complaints by providing incontrovertible evidence of personnel acting improperly. The Ombudsman’s efforts provided a starting point for criminal investigations and legal measures against prison staff and government employees. CCTV was installed throughout all detention centres, police centres and interrogation rooms after 2011 as a core recommendation of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry.
CCTV has been used for both relatively minor complaints and accusations that detention staff used physical force. The Ombudsman’s effective and professional role in investigating such complaints and, where appropriate, passing investigations on for legal measures, demonstrates how important this office is in improving accountability across Bahrain’s detentions system and the public sector in general.
During late 2016, Amnesty International commended the Ombudsman’s important role: “The Ombudsman’s office appears generally to have fulfilled its mandate to investigate alleged human rights violations, make recommendations and refer relevant cases to the SIU [Special Investigations Unit] or other authorities while also taking steps to increase its accessibility, improve its procedures and enhance transparency. It also claims to have resolved various issues related to the treatment of prisoners and detainees.”
Example A: A female detainee at the Women’s Reform and Rehabilitation Centre submitted a complaint via the Ombudsman complaints box that she had been prevented from having her allotted time to make a phone call to family members. She said that she had then been pressured to confirm that she had indeed used her full allowed time, during the course of which she claimed she had been insulted by staff members. The CCTV evidence upheld the detainee’s account of events and demonstrated that staff had behaved inappropriately; resulting in disciplinary procedures and the case being passed on to Security Prosecution for possible legal measures.
Example B: The uncle of a Jau Prison detainee submitted a complaint that his nephew claimed to have been assaulted by prison staff. Ombudsman personnel interviewed the detainee and ascertained that there had been a fight between detainees which security officials had broken up. The concerned detainee claimed not to have been involved in the fight; however, staff questioned him about the incident, during which “one of the officers slapped him on the neck and the other kicked him”. When Ombudsman officials checked CCTV footage, they found that officers had indeed pushed and kicked the detainee and they confirmed the identity of the staff involved: “The investigation concluded that there was clear evidence of a criminal act by police staff and the case was, therefore, transferred to the Security Prosecution with all the relevant evidences”.
Example C: One man submitted a complaint that his son had been assaulted at the Dry Dock Detention Centre. When they spoke to the individual involved who said that he had been manhandled and kicked after refusing to stand for a headcount. When Ombudsman officials scrutinized the CCTV footage: “The video showed police officers take Mr. F’s son out of his cell and try to apply handcuffs. Mr. F’s son was seen to resist by jumping up and down and staff had to put him on the floor in order to apply the handcuffs. The use of force by police up to this point was seen to be appropriate. An officer was then, however, seen to kick [the detainee] on the head… As the CCTV footage clearly evidenced the assault on Mr. F’s son by the officer concerned, the Ombudsman’s Office referred the case and supporting evidence to the Special Investigations Unit… the officer was referred to the Criminal Court where he was awarded a three month prison sentence.”
Example D: A detainee was receiving treatment in hospital. An argument commenced between him and Interior Ministry officials after he demanded the removal of his handcuffs. During the Ombudsman investigation, CCTV footage proved that the officer had indeed slapped the detainee across the face during the course of the argument. The incident was submitted to the Security Prosecution for criminal investigation.
On at least one occasion CCTV evidence disproved claims that a complainant had been slapped by a police officer: “CCTV showed Mr. H talking to a police officer and then screaming and yelling as he was handcuffed while he asked for the handcuffs to be removed. Mr. H was not seen to be slapped”.
Several complaints concerned limited access to healthcare inside detention centres. In a few instances the Ombudsman Office found that there were no grounds for the complaint; in other cases the Ombudsman intervened and ensured that detainees were receiving adequate care and attention. In one case the Ombudsman took up the case of a detainee who was said to require overseas treatment for a heart condition. The Ombudsman assisted in providing appropriate documentation which resulted in the court agreeing to his release for travel abroad.
Between May 2016 and April 2017 the Ombudsman received 1,156 complaints and requests for assistance (691 assistance requests; 465 complaints), bringing the total number of requests/complains handled by the Ombudsman Office in the four years of its existence to around 3,300.
The level of trust the Ombudsman Office has built up is evidenced by the fact that 41% of these complaints/requests were raised by complainants visiting the office in person to speak directly to investigators. A high proportion of complaints are lodged by detainees or their families. The vast majority of complaints were submitted by individuals, with less than 5% coming through organizations.
The Ombudsman explained: “Many assistance requests are made directly to the management of the detention and rehabilitation centres and considerable efforts are being made to encourage this. The Ombudsman Office will, however continue to accept assistance requests until the police, detention and rehabilitation centres can fully demonstrate that their internal complaint system can consistently deliver the requirements of the Regulations for the Implementation of the Bahrain Law of Reform and Rehabilitation Institute promulgated by Law No. (18) 2014. It will, however, always be the case that allegations of torture, assault and any other degrading, inhumane or criminal acts should always be brought directly to the Ombudsman Office”.
Statistics for investigation of specific cases
589 (out of 691) assistance requests during the year had been dealt with; the remainder being subject to ongoing investigation/follow-up.
Out of the 465 complaints; 83 had been referred to relevant bodies for further investigation; 123 were still being investigated by the Ombudsman Office; 215 had been resolved with the complaint satisfactorily addressed or not being upheld; while the remaining 44 complaints were judged to be outside the Ombudsman remit.
92 complaints were against police directorates for Bahrain’s four governorates; and 141 were for other directorates (Traffic, Passports, Preventative Security, Criminal Investigations, Customs, Airport Police…).
210 complaints emerged from reform and rehabilitation centres; 139 of these were from Jau Prison; 48 were from the Dry Dock Centre; 16 were from the Women’s Reform and Rehabilitation Centre; 6 were from the Women’s Detention Center; there were no complaints from the Juvenile Detention Centre; and only one complaint from the Deportation Centre.
Of the 83 complaints forwarded to other departments for further investigation; most (66 complaints) were forwarded to Security Prosecution; with 15 complaints being submitted to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU); one complaint to the Public Prosecution and one to the Disciplinary Centre.
Investigations into cases of death in detention
The Ombudsman investigates all instances of death in detention, including those for which there are no suspicious circumstances. Over the course of one year, there were four deaths at Jau Prison, one from a heart attack and three which are currently being investigated. Four detainees also died while in hospital; two from heart attacks; one resulting from chronic disease and the last case is still being investigated. The ongoing investigation cases are not understood to have suspicious circumstances and have so far been attributed to chronic disease, diabetes and illicit substances.
The Ombudsman has also submitted a number of recommendations for reducing deaths in custody, including reducing access to illicit substances and improving accident and emergency procedures.
Citizens for Bahrain’s review of the Ombudsman’s 2015-16 report can also be found here.