Bahrain: Police Beat, Threaten Children
By Human Rights Watch
Bahrain police beat children arrested in protest-related cases in February 2021 and threatened them with physical harassment and electric shocks, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy [BIRD] and Human Rights Watch said today. Prosecutors and judges enabled the abuses. Police and prosecutors refused to allow parents or lawyers of the children, ages 11 to 17, to be present during their interrogations, and judges unnecessarily ordered their detention. One of the children spent his 12th birthday in jail.
Four children remain in detention and are being tried as adults, including a 16-year-old with a serious medical condition whose next court hearing is set for March 11. Bahrain should release all children when there are alternatives to detention and drop abusive charges against them. Governments that support Bahrain and its police and security forces, including the United States and United Kingdom, should ensure their aid is not funding abuses and publicly demand accountability.
“A police officer who threatens a 13-year-old with physical harassment or electric shocks from a car battery is an abominable stain on Bahrain’s reputation,” said Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, advocacy director at BIRD. “Bahraini police officers treated children as enemies who must be terrorized into confessing, while prosecutors and judges shut parents and lawyers out of proceedings.”
According to information from family members and Ebtisam al-Saegh, a Bahraini rights advocate, police arrested and detained 13 children in early to mid-February. The two rights groups spoke to six of the children and the families of another five.
In some cases, police arrested children for allegedly burning bicycle tires or a chair or blocking a road on the day of their arrest. Police also accused children of planting a fake bomb, vandalism, and throwing Molotov cocktails in November 2020, the children and their families said. If convicted, some of the children could face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
The timing of the arrests indicates a heavy-handed government approach to protests on or around February 14, the tenth anniversary of the 2011 Arab uprising in Bahrain, to snuff out dissent and dissuade protesters from assembling to mark the anniversary, the rights groups said. Bahraini authorities have used pre-emptive or arbitrary arrests to deter people from protesting around other major events, like Formula One races.
On February 14, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa approved Law No. 4/2021 on Child Restorative Justice and Protection from Abuse, which will come into effect in six months. The law raises the age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 15, defines a child as anyone under 18, and provides for special child courts and separate detention facilities for children. Bahraini criminal laws currently treat children ages 16 and older as adults.
Most of the children’s cases involved abuses or due process violations at the Hamad Town police station. Five children, arrested on February 14 and 15, said that police from the station beat, insulted, and threatened them with electric shocks from a car battery. An officer hit a 13-year-old on his head and threatened to physical harassment him, give him electric shocks, and beat his genitals, and repeated the physical harassment threat even after his father was allowed to join him, his father said.
Police did not allow parents or lawyers to be present during the children’s arrest and initial questioning, during which abuses were also reported. Bahraini law provides that a lawyer may not be barred from seeing a client at any stage of a criminal proceeding. In five cases, parents were allowed to be present when police were taking the children’s statements, but only after the children had already orally confessed, and the officers had threatened to detain them if they did not repeat their confession in their formal statement, the children and parents said.
Children were also questioned at the Public Prosecution office in Manama. Prosecutors did not allow parents to be present when they took children’s statements, the children and their families said. Judges issued and renewed children’s detention orders without notifying parents or allowing them into hearings. Under Bahraini law, judges may issue or renew detention orders for up to seven days against children without a reasoned justification.
The authorities also refused to allow children’s families to visit them in detention. The family of Sayed Hasan Ameen, 16, was prohibited by authorities at the Dry Dock Detention Center from bringing his prescribed medications for five days after his arrest. The detention center then failed to give him his medicines for another three days. Ameen has serious medical complications from sickle cell anemia, including seizures, and was hospitalized for most of November. At a hearing on February 24, a judge refused to release Ameen. Three other children in his case also remain detained.
After international attention to their cases, six of the children detained in February were released, even though a judge had renewed their detention orders for seven days.
The abuses children described around the February 14 anniversary recall the findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) on abuses in February and March 2011, which reported that children were taken to police stations and subjected to “beating, slapping, kicking, lashing … and verbal abuse.” In 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture of children in detention in Bahrain.
The authorities have failed to credibly investigate and prosecute officials and police officers who allegedly committed serious violations, including torture, creating a culture of impunity.
“These abuses by Bahrain’s criminal justice system are the latest entry in a long record of harming children to send a repressive message,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The UK, US, and other governments should ensure that their security support to Bahrain is not being used to torture and humiliate kids.”