From labour exploitation to torturous conditions in confinement, the rights of foreign workers facing the death penalty in Bahrain are often neglected.
Between January 2016 and December 2021, 626 foreign nationals were sentenced to death or executed in Persian Gulf nations. The details of the cases behind this statistic give an insight into the exploitative work conditions of foreign workers, and the failures of the host countries and sending governments in safeguarding their rights. It is a tale of human rights abuses in the criminal justice system, from criminal investigation to conditions of incarceration.
Bahrain, for example, is an Islamic constitutional monarchy that retains the death sentence by firing squad for offences such as murder, rape, and drug trafficking. The last known execution occurred in 2019 (when three people were executed). No new death sentences were recorded in 2021.
But, foreign nationals are over-represented on death row, especially for murder, and when looking at the details of the cases, it appears the crimes are often motivated by financial hardship related to their poor employment conditions. Once sentenced, they are subjected to conditions that are tantamount to torture.
The latest data on Bahrain, gathered by the University of Oxford’s Death Penalty Research Unit with the help of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) and human rights NGO, Reprieve, revealed 19 cases of foreign men either sentenced to death or executed between January 2016 and December 2021. In 17 instances, they were convicted of homicide. Of these 19 cases, three defendants have since been acquitted and one executed, leaving 15 foreign nationals currently on death row.
Comparing this statistic to the latest Amnesty International annual report, which shows there are at least 26 people under sentence of death in Bahrain, it can be surmised that foreign nationals are over-represented on death row; they constitute 45 percent of the Bahraini population and 58 percent of the death row population. The data shows that in murder cases, foreign nationals are particularly over-represented, making up 87 percent of those awaiting execution for murder, and Bahrainis only 13 percent.
Bangladeshis in particular are sentenced to death for murder at a disproportionately higher rate. They represent 31 percent of the death row population and 47 percent of the murder cases but only 5 percent of the general population of Bahrain. The only foreign national to have been executed in Bahrain since 2011 was a Bangladeshi.
Many death row inmates convicted of violent crimes lived in precarious circumstances, financially and about their migratory status. It placed them in situations of danger and desperation. Most were employed as migrant workers. More than 600,000 migrant workers live in Bahrain, the majority of whom are from South Asia. Human rights organisations have reported that they are subject to abuse and lack of human rights under the much criticised kafala guest-worker system. In particular, they lack protection against exploitative practices such as withholding salaries, charging recruitment fees, and confiscating passports.
Significantly, in all of the 17 cases of foreign nationals convicted of homicide, both the perpetrator(s) and victims were foreign nationals, suggesting that migrant workers live somewhat separate lives from Bahrainis. And while there are no rich data on the circumstances surrounding all of the cases, 12 crimes were identified to be financially motivated, and/or the crime was related to their employment. For instance, two Bangladeshi workers were convicted of murdering a Bangladeshi national following a dispute over 50 Bahraini dinars (US$132). In 2019, a Filipino man was sentenced to death for killing a Pakistani national, who had confiscated his passport as collateral for a loan.
Evidence from Amnesty International suggests there may be due process concerns in foreign nationals’ cases. In 2014, two men, Mohamed Ramadhan and Hussain Ali Moosa were sentenced to death for killing a police officer. However, the two defendants claim they were coerced into signing false confessions after being subjected to torture – including beatings, electrocution, and being suspended by the limbs for several days.
Reprieve and BIRD documented that this torture continues once in detention. Those sentenced to death in Bahrain are held at Jau Prison, where there are widespread reports of abuse and torture, particularly regarding the use of solitary confinement.
In November 2016, prison authorities raided the cells of those on death row, subjected the detainees to verbal and physical abuse, and confiscated their food, Shia religious items, air conditioning units, and bathroom fixtures. Death row inmates are also reportedly subject to random beatings and deprived of sleep, food, and water. Those under the death sentence have described their living conditions as “extremely cramped and unhygienic,” with some being held in their cells for more than 23 hours a day. Access to communication and visits can be revoked as a form of punishment; in 2019, at least 13 people under sentence of death took part in a hunger strike to protest these conditions. These human rights abuses are exacerbated by the lack of independent oversight mechanisms and complaint procedures.
One mechanism that seeks to protect foreign nationals’ rights is the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations 1963. The convention states that when a foreign national is arrested, detained, or pending trial in another nation, the authorities of the host state must inform the individual without delay that they are entitled to have consular officials informed of their detention, and if the individual requests it, the consulate must be notified immediately. The consulate can act as a source of legal and pastoral support for the detainee and safeguard their rights while in detention. Bahrain acceded to this convention in 1992.
The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty is calling for capital punishment to be recognised as “torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” under a 1984 Convention, which Bahrain has ratified.
It is clear that in Bahrain, as elsewhere in the region, the criminal process and conditions of detention for those charged with capital offences often amount to torture and that foreign nationals are particularly affected by injustices within the system.
Lucy Harry is a post-doctoral researcher at the Death Penalty Research Unit, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the death penalty for drug trafficking in Southeast Asia, with a particular interest in gender-based perspectives.
Carolyn Hoyle is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit. Author of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, she has published extensively on the death penalty around the world, and her recent empirical research focuses on Asia and Africa.
Jocelyn Hutton is a Research Officer at the University of Oxford and member of the Death Penalty Research Unit. She is particularly interested in migrant rights, particularly migrant workers in the Middle East.
Editors Note: In the story “Death penalty” sent at: 29/08/2022 09:36.
This is a corrected repeat.