Of death and death sentences

Summary: The decision by a Bahrain court to uphold two death sentences highlights how authoritarian regimes exact revenge and silence opponents.

The ruling by Bahrain’s top court, the Court of Cassation, on 13 July to uphold the death sentences of Mohammed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa has been decried by human rights organisations, condemned in the House of Lords and questioned in Parliament.  Whether any of that will save the men from execution is debatable.

The men were convicted and sentenced to death in 2014 for the killing of a policeman.  That conviction was overturned when evidence emerged that they had been tortured into giving false confessions. Despite that decision the death penalty was reinstated and subsequently confirmed by the Court of Cassation.

An official in the Public Prosecutor’s office defended the court’s latest ruling while denying the accusation of torture, claiming that medical reports showed that the confessions were obtained “in full consciousness and voluntarily, without any physical or verbal coercion.”

That confounds the earlier court decision to throw out the convictions which was based on an investigation undertaken by the Bahraini government’s own Special Investigation Unit (SIU) that showed the men had been tortured. However, in the contorted reality of the kingdom’s politicised judicial system the Court of Cassation decided that the convictions were not based on evidence extracted under torture, but rather on other evidence.

Amnesty International in denouncing the latest verdict said: “The two men were taken to the Criminal Investigations Department where they were tortured during interrogation. Mohamed Ramadhan refused to sign a ‘confession’, though he was subjected to beating and electrocution. Hussain Ali Moosa said he was coerced to ‘confess’ and incriminate Mohamed Ramadhan after being suspended by the limbs and beaten for several days.”

Moosa has said that, after his genitalia were repeatedly beaten he was told that if he signed a confession implicating Ramadhan his sentence would be commuted to life: “They were kicking me on my reproductive organs, and would hit me repeatedly in the same place until I couldn’t speak from the pain. I decided to tell them what they wanted.” His repudiation of the confession was ignored by the courts.

In Parliament, four days prior to the Court of Cassation ruling, the Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley had asked the Foreign Secretary for a statement on whether he would use what he called  “the UK’s constructive dialogue” with Bahrain to publicly raise the cases of the men. In reply the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly,  spoke of a “close and important relationship” with an “ongoing, open and genuine dialogue” with Bahrain. The minister averred that “this dynamic” enabled the UK to raise human rights concerns, adding “the cases of Mr Moosa and Mr Ramadhan had been, and would continue to be, raised in conversations with officials in Bahrain.”

Earlier this month it was revealed that another heavily politicised judiciary, this time in Iran, had upheld the death sentences of three young Iranian protesters who had been arrested in November of last year during country-wide protest that saw hundreds killed by security forces. Though moving swiftly to convict the men and sentence them to death, the authorities have done virtually nothing about investigating the killings carried out by the state in suppressing the protests. Amongst media highlighting their case is the Saudi news site Al Arabiya. It noted that a hashtag trending in Iran, “do not execute”, has had over two million tweets.

In 2019 Saudi Arabia executed a record 184 people, including six women, many for drug-related offences. Some were crucified after being beheaded. At least one was a minor. In April the kingdom announced it would no longer execute juveniles, rather it would sentence them to a maximum of ten years in a juvenile detention centre.  It is unknown if the decree will save the life of Ali Al Nimr. He was 17 when arrested and 19 when sentenced to death. His uncle Nimr al Nimr, a prominent Shia Muslim cleric and critic of the ruling family, was beheaded in 2016.

In Egypt more than 2000 people have been sentenced to death since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2013, with nearly 200 executed. At least ten children have been sentenced to hang. In the country’s prison system there is another kind of death, by deliberate medical neglect, as was the case with the country’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi. He was repeatedly denied medication for his diabetes and collapsed and died in a Cairo court on 17 June 2019.

On 8 November last year, a panel of UN experts led by Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, concluded that Morsi’s death “after (he had endured) those conditions could amount to a State-sanctioned arbitrary killing”. The case shed light on the horrific conditions in Egypt’s overcrowded and brutal prison system, a situation that has been severely exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Egypt journalist Mohamed Monir died after contracting Covid-19 in pretrial detention in Tora prison

On  Monday, 13 July, the prominent Egyptian journalist Mohamed Monir died from Covid-19.  He had been arrested and held in pre-trial detention for criticising, on the Al Jazeera network, the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. The charge was broadcasting false news. (For insights into how the Sisi government has managed the crisis see our commentaries.) The 65 year-old suffered from heart disease and diabetes and was therefore at high risk of contracting the disease. After falling ill Monir was released to hospital a week before he died. An influential critical voice was silenced. Surely that was the intention – death, be it by medical malfeasance or by execution, is a powerful weapon in the hands of authoritarian regimes.

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