Bahrain: ICRC begins visits to detainees
In connection with the violence that erupted in Bahrain a year ago, resulting in numerous arrests, the ICRC has started visiting detainees in the country. Gerard Peytrignet, head of the ICRC regional delegation in Kuwait, explains.
What is the aim of the ICRC's visits to detainees in Bahrain?
The main objective of our visits to detainees – whether in Bahrain or elsewhere in the world – is to monitor their conditions of detention and their treatment and bring about improvements where necessary. It is important to recall that people arrested and detained must at all times be treated humanely and held in decent conditions. We check whether they have access to basic necessities such as food, sanitation, health care, contact with family members, etc.
Another important focus of our visits is to monitor the treatment the detainees receive, from the moment of arrest and throughout the entire period of their detention – including during the interrogation period and pre-trial detention.
Detainees who have not been able to contact their families will be given the opportunity to send messages to them. This is of course done in full transparency: the detaining authorities check the messages, which are allowed to contain nothing but family news.
Why have the visits begun only now, almost one year after the civil unrest erupted?
We have been engaged in dialogue with the authorities in Bahrain for several months. The dialogue resulted in the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the interior ministry in December 2011. On this basis, we started to visit detainees in the second half of January. The ICRC had already visited places of detention in Bahrain between 1996 and 2001.
Which are the detention places the ICRC has access to? And which detainees do you have access to?
We are currently visiting Jaw prison in Manama, the main detention facility in the country. The visits are being carried out by a team of five ICRC delegates, including one physician. Under the agreement with the Bahraini authorities, we have access to all detainees held in connection with the current unrest.
Will detainees trust the ICRC? Will they speak freely to its delegates?
Visiting detainees, anywhere in the world, is a challenge. Our overall aim is to ensure that detainees are treated humanely and held in satisfactory conditions. There are standard conditions for carrying out visits to detainees. In order to get an independent and accurate picture, we need to be able to tour the premises, to repeat visits as often as necessary, to have dialogue with the detaining authorities, and to talk freely with the detainees of our choice, in private.
Private talks with detainees are central to assessing detention conditions and treatment. But they are also a way of bringing some humanity to places where people are cut off from their families and friends. The personal relationship you have with prisoners is paramount because what you bring as a human being can sometimes already bring some kind of relief. Visits are repeated frequently, in order to enable us to monitor individual cases effectively. This also helps build trust with the detainees we visit.
I would like to stress that private talks with detainees remain strictly confidential. We never use the names of the detainees in our discussions with the authorities, unless we have been explicitly asked by the detainee to do so – even then, we only do it if we believe that it is in the best interest of the person concerned.
Why doesn't the ICRC speak out publicly about detention conditions in Bahrain or elsewhere?
The fact that the ICRC doesn't share its concerns publicly does not mean that we don't have any. We take up our findings and recommendations directly with the authorities in confidential dialogue. Because we are convinced that our aims can be achieved only on the basis of a solid and long-lasting relationship of trust, our dialogue with the authorities on these issues remains bilateral and confidential.
Since the start of violence in Bahrain, the ICRC has been keen to remind the authorities of their obligation to respect the rules governing the use of force and the treatment of detainees, and to respect medical facilities, personnel and vehicles.
Our priority now will be to check on the detention conditions and the treatment of persons arrested in connection with the violence, but we will also tackle structural and other issues that may affect everyone in places of detention.