State Department Reports on Bahrain’s Implementation of the BICI

The State Department submitted to Congress an unclassified report on the steps taken by the Government of Bahrain to implement the recommendations in the 2011 Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) on June 21, 2016. The report was required by the FY16 Omnibus appropriations bill that was enacted on December 18, 2015, and due to be submitted to Congress on February 1, 2016. The report was released 141 days late, amid an escalating crackdown on dissenting voices, opposition figures, and the Shi’a religious community in Bahrain.  The full text of the report is available here.

The November 2011 BICI report outlined specific recommendations for the Government of Bahrain to move from a period of unrest following the popular uprising of 2011 into national reconciliation and reform. The recommendations of the BICI report included the release of political prisoners, reinstatement of dismissed workers and students, creation of independent institutions to provide oversight over the security forces, reconstruction of destroyed Shi’a mosques, integration of the security forces, and the establishment of an independent national commission to implement the BICI recommendations.

The State Department report cites Congressional language requiring the report  to describe “the specific steps taken by the Government of Bahrain to implement the recommendations in the 2011 Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), including further steps the government should take to fully implement the recommendations and an assessment of the impact of the findings of the Report for U.S. security in the region.” The 18-page report, which is summarized below, finds that “the Government of Bahrain has implemented some important recommendations of the commission of inquiry” while cautioning that “there are other key recommendations that have not been fully implemented.” This is broadly consistent with the conclusion of the BICI Head Commissioner, Cherif Bassiouni, who stated on June 5 that only 10 of the 26 recommendations had been meaningfully implemented.

For most of the recommendations, the report fails to identify further steps the government of Bahrain should take to fully implement the BICI recommendation.  Also, unlike in the State Department’s similar, Congressionally-mandated report in 2013, this report fails to state clearly whether the State Department considers each recommendation to be fully, partially, or not meaningfully implemented.  In addition, the report fails to provide “an assessment of the impact of the findings of the Report for U.S. security in the region” as required by the appropriations legislation.

The State Department report notes some of the progress Bahrain has made, including the Bahraini government’s efforts to rebuild demolished religious buildings, reinstate employees dismissed in 2011, investigate claims of torture, compensate families of victims of state violence, and institute human rights training for police and security forces.  At the same time, the report notes “more work remains to be done,” including protecting freedom of expression and providing due process protections consistent with Bahrain’s international obligations.  The report determines that “efforts to build trust across Bahraini society and foster an environment conductive [sic] to national reconciliation have stalled, diminishing the effect of government actions to implement BICI recommendations, and minimizing popular acceptance of newly established government institutions.”

The State Department report finds that human rights training for police and security forces “have been generally effective, resulting in fewer incidents of use of excessive force by police against public demonstrations, no reports of protester deaths in 2015, and no reports of inmate deaths stemming from abuse in 2015.” The report also determines that at least two-thirds of Bahrain’s judiciary had received training to help prevent torture.  The report also notes the Bahraini government’s establishment of a Civil Settlement Office (CSO) with a $26 million budget to compensate citizens and residents who were victims of torture.

The State Department report finds that all public employees dismissed during the demonstrations have been reinstated, or their cases resolved, though NGOs report that several have been placed in lower level positions. The State Department also determined that the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic reinstated 419 students and re-awarded 97 scholarships, though some students were required to sign loyalty pledges. According to the State Department report, the Bahraini government has rebuilt or made progress on rebuilding 27 of 30 demolished Shi’a mosques identified in the BICI report.

With regard to reports of death, torture, and the mistreatment of civilians and detainees, the report notes that a Special Investigative Unit (SIU) was created under the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) to pursue these cases, but also reports that human rights organizations “have questioned the impartiality and independence of the SIU” because of its placement under the PPO. The State Department report specifically notes the cases of 33 police officers who were referred to disciplinary or criminal courts as a result of complaints, though “security officials facing serious charges of abuse, however, are typically released and are not suspended from duty during the duration of their trials.” Additionally, just 10 percent of the more than 200 cases that have been handled by the SIU have gone to trial.

Several other BICI recommendations focus on the treatment of prisoners and detainees, especially in regards to due legal process.  As of 2014, all police stations, interrogations rooms, temporary detention rooms, and prisons are covered by CCTV cameras to be monitored by the Ombudsman. However, the State Department report notes that several human rights organizations claim that Bahraini authorities refuse to share recordings when they are requested by defense lawyers as part of court proceedings. There are also numerous reports of detentions, beatings, and interrogations at unofficial locations.

The BICI recommendations stressed the importance of improved freedom of speech in Bahrain, but the State Department report finds that the Government of Bahrain has made little progress on these reforms.  According to the State Department report, “new regulations have not resulted in greater opposition access to media and restrictions on media and speech appear to be increasing.” It also notes that “numerous individuals” were jailed in 2014 and 2015 for critical comments of the government made on social media. The State Department report calls for Bahrain to better protect freedom of speech by “strengthening legal protections for freedom of expression and ensuring that laws and regulations are applied evenly regardless of content or message.”

The report also finds inconsistencies in the application of freedom of expression laws. Under freedom of expression laws, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs suspended Sunni cleric Jassim Saeedi in June 2015 for inciting sectarian hate speech during his preaching, yet it ended the suspension the following month. In contrast, Sheikh Ali Salman of al-Wefaq and Ibrahim Sharif of Wa’ad remain imprisoned for speeches that the State Department report considers protected as political speech. The State Department encourages the government of Bahrain to “differentiate more effectively between the narrow range of language that involves incitement to violence and legitimate, political and religious speech.”

The report stresses that the Bahraini government continues to charge and prosecute individuals with offenses involving political expression and encourages Bahrain to review “cases of others who have been arrested and imprisoned on charges involving non-violent political expression since March 2011,” and drop the charges against or commute the sentences of those individuals.

Finally, the BICI recommended that the Government of Bahrain develop a national reconciliation program to address the grievances of parts of the population that feel persecuted or deprived of equal rights. The State Department report finds that a 2014 national dialogue program led to modest political reforms, but notes that the program did not win broad support from the opposition or advance national reconciliation, and assesses that national reconciliation “has not yet been achieved.” The State Department encourages “the Government of Bahrain to take additional, meaningful steps to create conditions that foster reconciliation with the segments of Bahraini society that feel disenfranchised.”

Speaking about the report in the State Department’s daily press briefing on June 22, State Department Spokesman John Kirby called on Bahrain to “reverse recent harmful actions,” including “the suspension of the opposition political society Al-Wefaq; the extension of the prison sentence of Wefaq’s secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman; the detention of activist Nabeel Rajab; and the revocation of citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim.” He further noted that these reforms are critical to the security and stability of Bahrain, emphasizing that the United States is “going to continue to make the case that these reforms are in Bahrain’s best interest.”