Bahrain, a U.S. ally in the Middle East, has failed to curb human rights abuses, with its security forces continuing to torture detainees during interrogations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week.
The allegations are particularly relevant considering that a U.S. decision in June to lift a ban on security assistance to Bahrain was conditioned on human rights reforms.
Based on interviews with 10 detainees, the HRW report chronicles alleged mistreatment and torture by security forces who reportedly subjected detainees to electric shocks, forced standing, extreme cold and sexual abuse.
Bahrain’s human rights record came under a spotlight in 2011 when largely peaceful Arab Spring demonstrations were met with lethal force by authorities. Twenty protesters died, and more than 1,600 were arrested — most of them held incommunicado for weeks or in some cases months, according to HRW.
Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at the watchdog organization, said Bahrain targeted certain detainees for torture during the 2011 protests.
“Much of the torture was aimed at these sort of high-profile, anti-government figures,” McGeehan said. “So torture was not only being used, but it was being used as a target against the government’s principal critics.”
Following international condemnation, Bahrain established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which issued its own report and recommendations.
The U.S. State Department placed a ban on security assistance to Bahrain after the abuse allegations came to light. But Washington decided to lift the ban this year, citing improvements in the country’s demonstrated respect for human rights.
“While we do not think that the human rights situation in Bahrain is adequate … we believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation,” the State Department said in a statement at the time.
The statement went on to call Bahrain — which hosts the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet — “an important and long-standing ally” on regional security issues, including on the “counter-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) campaign” and in “countering terrorism.”
McGeehan said the U.S. sees “Bahrain as an ally, but a problematic ally … I think they’ll probably see these allegations as inconvenient when you put them into the regional context.”
The torture chronicled in HRW’s report took place between 2012 and 2015. One detainee said his interrogator told him, “‘I’ll show you why Wifaq (Bahrain’s Shia opposition party) calls Bahrain the capital of torture.’” Another detainee was reportedly unable to remain standing after electric shocks, after which several officers allegedly beat him unconscious.
The report comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits the Middle East this week. On Nov. 19, Kerry tweeted a picture of himself meeting and shaking hands with Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, saying that Khalifa had “constructive ideas” on Syria and ISIL.