Amnesty International reviews progress by Bahrain Ombudsman’s Office
On 21 November, Amnesty International issued a 55-page report investigating two Bahraini institutions for addressing human rights abuses – the Ombudsman’s Office and the Special Investigations Unit. The report was entitled: Window dressing or pioneers of change?
Regarding the Ombudsman’s effectiveness Amnesty said: “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 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.”
The Amnesty report is useful in emphasizing the need to enhance the Ombudsman’s perceived independence; and consolidating the organization’s ability to rapidly investigate all allegations of abuse.
Amnesty is critical of Ombudsman Nawaf al-Moawdah’s failure to speak out publically on a range of human rights issues which are arguably outside his jurisdiction. In fact, the Ombudsman is right to avoid politicizing his position and to continue acting as a pragmatic investigator able to work effectively within the Bahraini system.
Amnesty criticizes the British Foreign Office’s support for these human rights institutions, despite the fact these and other institutions owe a certain amount of their success to this support in terms of training, funding, networking opportunities and international exposure.
The recommendation to “reach out to and engage with” the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights (EBOHR) illustrate how Amnesty’s impartiality has been partially compromised by heavy reliance on opposition bodies with an entirely political agenda.
There is a crucial difference between raising constructive criticisms with the aim of improving performance and benefitting the public; and criticism intended to damage and undermine the concerned institutions. The BCHR deals in the latter because it is wedded to the cause of revolution, not reform.
See a full review of the Ombudsman’s 2015-16 report here.
Review of Amnesty International report on the Ombudsman’s Office
The office of Ombudsman was set up in February 2012 in accordance with BICI recommendations 1717 and 1722. Amnesty notes that “the Ombudsman is mandated to receive and examine complaints about alleged abuses by police and other officials under Ministry of Interior authority and refer them to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) or other authorities for further investigation and possible prosecution or disciplinary action”.
The Ombudsman can also initiate its own investigations and investigates all deaths in custody. The Ombudsman refers cases involving torture and ill-treatment or deaths in custody to the SIU for further investigation and possible prosecution.
Amnesty says: “The Ombudsman has ‘sole authority’ to decide how his/her office uses its budget, allocated from the budget of the Ministry of Interior, and the level of expenditure it requires to function”.
Amnesty said: “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 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.”
The report said: “While the Ombudsman’s office may make recommendations, it cannot compel other authorities to implement them. The Ombudsman’s office promptly investigated the November 2014 death of Jaw Prison inmate Hassan Majeed al-Shaikh, and referred the case to the SIU, which subsequently charged three officers of the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Narcotics Department with torturing detainees and causing the death of Hassan alShaikh. The SIU also charged the prison director and two prison officers with allowing the torture of inmates in their custody.”
The report recognized assistance provided by the Ombudsman; informing families where detainees are held, interceding with prison authorities to restore communication between detainees and their families, and by securing access to medical care.
Amnesty also praised the Ombudsman’s success in implementing recommendations:
“The Ombudsman’s office improved access to its complaints mechanism by establishing an office in Jaw Prison in 2014, installing complaints boxes in police stations, prisons and other Ministry of Interior facilities, by making its complaint form available in several languages on its website, and by simplifying the process by which NGOs can submit complaints.”
“Some of the recommendations contained in the Ombudsman’s first annual report – that detainees aged 15 to 18 years should be held separately from adult detainees at Jaw and Dry Dock prisons; that new facilities should be constructed to ease overcrowding at Jaw Prison; and that surveillance cameras should be installed in prisons, police stations and other detention facilities – have been implemented, at least partially, by the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry has also barred police and security officials from gaining access to prison inmates without prior PPO authorization, implementing a recommendation that the Ombudsman made following the death of Hassan al-Shaikh.”
The Ombudsman’s Office also provides training for prison staff in appropriate care of detainees. However, Amnesty contested that in a number of cases allegations hadn’t been satisfactorily followed up. The report recommended the following:
- Ensure that any detainees are fully protected against torture and other ill-treatment, ensuring that they are moved to other facilities whenever appropriate and any state officials accused of torture or other abuse of detainees are immediately suspended pending investigation;
- Recommend to the Ministries of Interior and Health that they instruct prison health care authorities to ensure that prisoners and detainees in their custody have adequate access to medical care, appropriate medication and medical examinations and treatment outside prison when recommended by doctors;
Independence and impartiality
Although the Ombudsman controls its own budget and it is independently audited by the Financial Audit Bureau, Amnesty claims that its independence is compromised by this budget being made available through the Interior Ministry.
Amnesty also claims that the fact that Nawaf al-Moawdah formerly worked for the Public Prosecution Office compromises his perceived independence – although such criteria would automatically exclude almost anyone with the necessary experience and qualifications for the role.
Amnesty says Al-Moawdah’s previous roles and experience “created a perception in some quarters of closeness to the government and association with its policies that runs counter to notions of independence and impartiality”.
The report also states that “to date the Ombudsman has failed to publicly criticize new allegations of human rights violations”. This could be seen as a fundamental misunderstanding of the Ombudsman role, which is in no way mandated to give a running commentary on judicial and political developments. Indeed, if the Ombudsman did start speaking out in such a manner, the role would quickly become politicized and politically compromised in a manner which would undermine the objectivity and impartiality of the office. It is right that the Ombudsman periodically speaks out on human rights in general and highlights shortcomings in Bahrain institutions, but it would be a dangerous precedent to publically discuss individual cases before the judicial process has run its course.
“The Ombudsman has actively participated in UN discussions about human rights in Bahrain and in promoting internationally an impression that his office’s work, together with that of the SIU, provides Bahrain with an effective, independent system for addressing human rights violations and ensuring accountability.”
Amnesty said: “The Ombudsman is mandated to maintain confidentiality in order to safeguard complainants from reprisals and his office generally appears to do so.”
However, Amnesty cited two examples of circumstantial evidence that confidentiality may have been breached.
The following two recommendations relate to issues of confidentiality:
- Regularly remind staff of the need to ensure confidentiality and protection of victims from reprisals during and following the conduct of their investigations, including when meeting victims and witnesses in detention and that those found breaching confidentiality will be held accountable;
- Thoroughly and promptly investigate how Bahrain’s Brussels embassy obtained the Ombudsman’s confidential report to the Ministry of Interior on Mohamed Ramadhan and how his confidential complaints were passed to the UK government without his or his family’s consent, publish the result and take appropriate disciplinary or other action against those suspected to be responsible;
Promptness and adequacy
Amnesty said: “The Ombudsman has the powers and resources to adequately and promptly investigate and to enter places of detention without notice. Yet, the Ombudsman’s mandate does not give his office a time-bound requirement to respond to the complainant.”
Amnesty reported 10 cases where there was said to not have been prompt action in responding to concerns by families.
“In five cases, the Ombudsman failed to promptly visit prisoners alleging torture and other ill-treatment or to conduct direct investigations at the CID and other detention facilities to locate detainees.”
Amnesty made the following recommendations:
- Intervene immediately in all cases in which detainees are reportedly held in undisclosed locations where they could be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment in order to ascertain their whereabouts and inform their families, ensure their safety and access to legal counsel of their own choosing, including by carrying out unannounced visits to places of detention, in particular the CID;
- Conduct regular unannounced inspections of all places of detention, including Jaw and Dry Dock prisons and the CID and other facilities, and publish the Ombudsman’s findings and recommendations, including those related to the inspection it undertook of the CID;
- Set up and clarify publicly, including on its website, a reasonable time standard for investigating and deciding outcomes and regularly communicating full and adequate details, including any SIU investigation and outcomes to complainants;
Amnesty criticized the first annual Ombudsman report for being vague, but noted: “The second annual report says the Ombudsman received 908 complaints between May 2014 and April 2015, 319 of which were considered “complaints” with 589 considered ‘requests for assistance’. The report provides more information than the earlier one, stating the number of cases it referred to the SIU, including one alleged torture case.
Amnesty said: “At least seven alleged victims of human rights violations and their families have told Amnesty International that they have received little or no information from the Ombudsman since submitting complaints… This lack of information gives victims and their families the impression that the Ombudsman is not taking action or is not taking their complaint seriously.”
Amnesty called for more specific categorizing in its reporting and recommended the following:
- Publish the results of the investigation of allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners at Jaw Prison during and following the disturbances there in March 2015;
- Specify in its annual report statistics the number of complaints related to torture and other ill-treatment or unlawful killings, the reasons that led the Ombudsman to either refer the case on, dismiss it or “resolve”
Amnesty said: “Amnesty International has encouraged victims, their families and lawyers to submit complaints to the Ombudsman since his office began operating. The Ombudsman has undertaken international outreach, for example by participating in sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and meeting with multiple international delegations in Bahrain. According to the Ombudsman’s annual reports, his office has sought to raise public awareness of, and build confidence in, its role by improving access to its mechanisms and through outreach to Bahraini civil society groups and others.”
Amnesty added: “The Ombudsman has pointed to the increase in complaints received by his office, including new complaints from former complainants, as evidence of growing public confidence in his work. However, this is disputed by many Bahraini lawyers, human rights defenders and others, including victims’ families, who continue to question the Ombudsman’s independence, impartiality and effectiveness.”
It should be noted that precisely the constituencies which have questioned the Ombudsman’s impartiality – such as prisoners’ families and pro-opposition “human rights” entities – would in any circumstances be highly unlikely to give any credit to the institution under any circumstances.
Here is what the US State Department had to say about the importance of the Ombudsman’s Office, during its 2016 human rights report:
“The Ombudsman’s Office, PDRC, and SIU expanded the number of abuse cases each undertook to investigate and received greater access to prisons, to interview detainees and prisoners, and to question security personnel. The ombudsman opened a permanent office at Jaw Prison to accept prisoner complaints. New buildings at Jaw Prison helped reduce prison overcrowding, and prisoners 21 years old and younger were moved from Jaw Prison into new buildings at the Dry Dock facility. There were increased educational opportunities for prisoners of all ages.”
“The Office of the Ombudsman began monitoring prisons and detention centers in 2013, conducting announced and unannounced visits and accepting written and in-person complaints. From May 2014 until April, the office received 908 complaints.”
“The Ombudsman reported it received 84 complaints against the CID and 83 against Jaw Prison from May 2014 to May. The Ombudsman referred 40 of the cases against the CID and 24 against Jaw Prison for criminal or disciplinary procedures; 50 more cases were still under investigation.”
The 2016 British Foreign Office report also praised the importance of the Ombudsman’s Office. It stated that British support continues for “independent human rights and oversight institutions” such as the National Institution of Human Rights, the independent Ombudsman, the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission and the Special Investigations Unit. The report singled out continuing achievements by these human rights and oversight bodies: “Following an earlier recommendation from the Ombudsman’s Office on youth justice reform, 15 to 18 year-olds and 18 to 21 year-olds in detention continued to be accommodated separately. Work is now needed on rehabilitation, release and reintegration into communities.”
In marking the last International Human Rights Day, Ombudsman Nawaf Al Ma’awdah said: “Allegations of human rights abuses may continue to cast a shadow over Bahrain but my staff and I remain committed to ensuring that all allegations are fully, independently and transparently investigated. There is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate our commitment to access independent evidence and to deliver just and fair outcomes. We have demonstrated that we will act decisively, whenever and wherever we find wrongdoing.”