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Amnesty International reviews progress of Special Investigations Unit

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?

A review of Amnesty’s report into the Ombudsman’s Office can be found here.

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was established by the Public Prosecutor in March 2012 in response to BICI recommendations 1716 and 1722, with a mandate to determine the criminal liability of officials responsible for physical abuse and other illegal acts. Following its investigation, the SIU can bring criminal charges against the suspected perpetrator and refer them for trial before the courts or refer the matter to another government authority to impose disciplinary sanctions.

Amnesty noted that “the powers of the SIU have increased since 2014 when the head of the SIU was given the rank of Attorney General, enabling him to refer criminal prosecutions directly to the courts for trial without first obtaining the PPO’s approval.”

Amnesty summarized the SIU’s overall record as follows: “Nine of the 44 cases referred for criminal trial by the SIU resulted in 23 members of the security forces facing charges arising from deaths caused by torture or other violence while the 35 others saw 70 members of the security forces face assault and other charges arising from alleged torture and other ill-treatment and, in one case, excessive use of force. Fifteen officers were convicted by the courts. According to the SIU, it lodged appeals in 21 cases against both acquittals and lenient sentences, 18 before the High Criminal Court of Appeal and three before the Court of Cassation.”

The SIU’s record so far of 93 successful prosecutions shows that in the four years of its existence the SIU has been active in pursuing allegations of criminal liability. Furthermore, the report also demonstrates that in cases where defendants have been acquitted or given light sentences the SIU has persistently appealed or sought other forms of legal redress:

For example, a court imposed 10-year prison sentences on two police officers for deliberately beating Ali al-Saqer, resulting in his death in April 2011. An appeal court reduced their sentences to two years. The SIU appealed this decision and the two officers’ prison sentences were restored to seven years in January 2016.

In another example, the SIU referred an officer for trial charged with the murder of Fadhel Abbas in 2014. The court acquitted the officer of killing Abbas but convicted him of using excessive force against another individual. Following an SIU appeal, the officer was convicted of killing Abbas and sentenced to an additional three years’ imprisonment.

However, Amnesty raised a small number of cases where it claimed the SIU had failed to secure a conviction and where doubts had been raised about the confidential handling of information. The report also noted concerns that the SIU was seen as being too closely affiliated to the Interior Ministry.

Amnesty praised the SIU’s transparent reporting procedures, saying that “since its establishment, the SIU has also reported transparently on its investigations by publishing monthly statements on its investigations on its Instagram account. The statements include the number of cases investigated by the SIU, the nature of each allegation and the rank of the accused officer, and say whether the SIU referred the alleged victim to a forensic doctor or psychologist and referred the case to court, and report the outcome of trials and appeals brought by the SIU and their outcome.”

However, Amnesty noted that the SIU’s investigations had been undermined by a lack of cooperation by the opposition and some of those who had made allegations of torture. The report said that “twelve of the 13 opposition activists arrested in 2011 refused to have their allegations of torture investigated by the SIU or the PPO [Public Prosecutions Office] because they do not consider them to be independent bodies able to investigate their allegations impartially.”

 

Review of Amnesty report on the SIU

 

Mandate

Amnesty reported: “The SIU is empowered to summon officials of any rank for questioning. The head of the SIU is assisted by seven Public Prosecution investigators, forensic medicine specialists and judicial police, and is advised by an international expert appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council.”

“The SIU opens investigations based on complaints from victims, families and lawyers, media reports of alleged abuses and when the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman refers allegations of torture and other ill treatment and deaths in custody deemed ‘criminal’ or the PPO [Public Prosecutions Office] refers torture and other ill-treatment allegations that detainees have made to prosecutors. The SIU Directives require it to investigate allegations of torture and other ill-treatment or unlawful killing even if it is not supported by ‘serious proof or evidence’ and to quickly ‘carry out inspections and examinations of the victims’ and record the findings.”

 

Effectiveness

Amnesty reported: “The SIU has the capability to be an effective mechanism, and it has helped to ensure some accountability by prosecuting 93 members of the security officers on criminal charges in 44 separate cases. However, most prosecutions have been of low-ranking personnel.”

“The SIU has the powers, resources and mandate to conduct effective and thorough investigations into allegations of human rights violations and to bring those it finds responsible to trial – including those with superior responsibility, and to appeal against court decisions if it so decides. The head of the SIU signaled to Amnesty International that he could obtain more resources if he wanted to as he could readily appoint additional judicial police if they were required.”

“Nine of the 44 cases referred for criminal trial by the SIU resulted in 23 members of the security forces facing charges arising from deaths caused by torture or other violence while the 35 others saw 70 members of the security forces face assault and other charges arising from alleged torture and other ill-treatment and, in one case, excessive use of force. Fifteen officers were convicted by the courts. According to the SIU, it lodged appeals in 21 cases against both acquittals and lenient sentences, 18 before the High Criminal Court of Appeal and three before the Court of Cassation. In two of these cases, the SIU successfully appealed against a lenient sentence and the acquittal of two officers accused of killing two men.”

“The SIU’s effectiveness is also limited by factors outside of its own control. In particular, the lack of an independent and impartial judiciary has translated, for the SIU, into a high proportion of failed prosecutions of police officers and other members of the security forces whom the courts have acquitted on grounds of ‘lack of evidence’ or after accepting defence claims that officers who used lethal fire were acting in legitimate self-defence. And when courts have convicted officers prosecuted by the SIU, they have tended to impose lenient sentences that fail to reflect the gravity of the crime.”

 

Independence & impartiality

Amnesty reported: “Prior to his appointment, the current head of the SIU was a Deputy Attorney General within the PPO. Some of his staff are former PPO officials or judicial police seconded from, and paid by, the Ministry of Interior. The SIU also continues to be based within the same building in Manama as the PPO… In January 2015, the head of the SIU told Amnesty International that the SIU planned to move to new premises, but it had not done so by September 2016.”

Amnesty made the following recommendations:

  • Ensure that the number of Ministry of Interior and Justice employees at the decision-making level, including investigators, judicial police and forensic doctors, are reduced to a maximum of 25% compared with non-government staff, and ensure judicial police are directly employed and paid by the SIU;
  • Relocate the SIU to new premises outside of the Public Prosecution Office that reflects its standing as an independent institution;

 

Confidentiality

Amnesty reported: “The SIU is bound by the Special Directives, as well as the Istanbul Protocol, to protect victims and witnesses from “any possible harm” and to assure them that they and their families will not be exposed to harm on account of their testimony. Yet, in at least three cases alleged torture victims have complained that they were subjected to reprisals or re-traumatization after the Ombudsman or PPO referred complaints to the SIU.”

Amnesty made the following recommendations:

  • Regularly remind investigators of the need to ensure confidentiality and protection from reprisals and that those accused of breaching confidentiality will be thoroughly investigated and held accountable;
  • Recommend to the Public Prosecutor to amend the Directives to the SIU to strengthen victim protection, including guarantees of protection from violence, threats of violence and any other form of intimidation pursuant to the investigation;

 

Promptness & transparency

Amnesty reported: “The SIU is required by the Istanbul Protocol and enabled through its mandate and resources to adequately and promptly investigate allegations of human rights violations and, in a number of cases, its investigations have been conducted promptly and adequately. It has also been transparent in its public reporting of its investigations and the cases it has referred to trial or appealed. Yet, in at least seven cases documented by Amnesty International, the SIU failed to adhere to the principles of promptness, adequacy and transparency and failed to abide by the Istanbul Protocol – for example, by not opening an investigation or gathering evidence promptly.”

“The SIU has promptly and adequately investigated human rights violations in a number of cases. For example, the SIU took prompt action to charge and refer to court a security officer who was filmed shooting a peaceful protester in the face in January 2015.”

“Since its establishment, the SIU has also reported transparently on its investigations by publishing monthly statements on its investigations on its Instagram account. The statements include the number of cases investigated by the SIU, the nature of each allegation and the rank of the accused officer, and say whether the SIU referred the alleged victim to a forensic doctor or psychologist and referred the case to court, and report the outcome of trials and appeals brought by the SIU and their outcome.”

Amnesty made the following recommendations:

  • Ensure accountability for all recorded cases of human rights violations, referring to trial, where appropriate, officers of all ranks including those with superior responsibility; Ensure that all SIU investigations are conducted promptly and strictly follow the methods set out in the Istanbul Protocol;
  • Set up and clarify publicly a reasonable time standard for investigating, including a minimum amount of time that medical and psychiatric examinations are conducted within, and deciding outcomes and communicating full and adequate details;
  • Disclose to complainants how the SIU reached a decision to close a case, ensuring that more details other than “lack of evidence” is given, and the steps taken by the SIU in cases where investigations have been slow to demonstrate the reason for not coming to a conclusion; also set up a transparent complaints procedure to enable complainants to challenge the SIU’s decision to close an investigation.

 

Public confidence

Amnesty reported: “Local NGOs, human rights defenders, lawyers, detainees, victims of human rights violations and their families and political activists have told Amnesty International that they have not seen any improvements the SIU has brought to Bahrainis’ access to justice for human rights violations. Twelve of the 13 opposition activists arrested in 2011 refused to have their allegations of torture investigated by the SIU or the PPO because they do not consider them to be independent bodies able to investigate their allegations impartially.”

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