BEIRUT, Lebanon — Two Bahraini men who say they were tortured into making false confessions were sentenced to death for the fifth time on Monday in what international rights groups called another stain on Bahrain’s record of imprisoning, torturing and executing government critics.
The two men, both members of Bahrain’s Shiite majority, were first arrested and tried for a bombing that killed a police officer in 2014. They faced execution even after a Bahraini internal investigation found medical evidence that one had been tortured.
“They’d beat me up. I’d go up again and deny,” said Husain Moosa, one of the defendants, describing his interrogation to a rights activist in a January recording reviewed by The New York Times. After the third beating by an interrogator, Mr. Moosa recalled, “ I told him, ‘I’ll say what you want. What do you want me to say?’”
Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, has a majority-Shiite population but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, leading to occasional protests and violence against government security forces. Since 2011, when it turned to Saudi Arabia to help quash a Shiite revolt, the Bahraini government has prosecuted a growing number of Shiite leaders and activists.
The kingdom carried out 10 executions in the six decades before 2017, then six in just the past three years, according to Reprieve, a Britain-based rights group that provides legal support to people facing the death penalty. Reports of detainees tortured into confessing with electric shocks, extreme cold and sexual abuse are common.
Bahrain’s government has established two oversight agencies to investigate misconduct allegations against its security forces, funding them with the help of Britain, which has supplied Bahrain’s security and justice system with millions of pounds since 2012. The kingdom is also a longtime ally of the United States and hosts the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
“To Western partners, Bahrain promises human rights reform,” said Maya Foa, Reprieve’s director. “To citizens, it threatens that if you speak out, you will be imprisoned, tortured and convicted of crimes you did not commit.”
Mr. Moosa and the other man sentenced on Monday, Mohammed Ramadhan, were arrested in February 2014 after a bomb detonated in the village of Al Dair, near Bahrain’s international airport, while policemen in the area were breaking up a riot, according to prosecutors. One officer was killed, and several others injured. Prosecutors identified Mr. Moosa and Mr. Ramadhan, who faced several terrorism-related charges.
Mr. Moosa, 34, a hotel driver, later said that interrogators handcuffed and hanged him from the ceiling for three days, repeatedly beating him on his back, face and genitals. In pain, he eventually confessed, implicating Mr. Ramadhan, a 37-year-old airport policeman.
“The most tormenting thing was being hit on my testicles just to say that it was Mohammed,” Mr. Moosa recounted in the January recording. “They hit me with their shoes, and two people would come and make me lie on the floor and they would touch the testicles. One person would grab my thighs to open my legs completely and the other person would press the testicles.”
Mr. Moosa has said his wrists were zip-tied, causing them to swell so much that his interrogators had to hospitalize him.
Zahra Moosa, Mr. Moosa’s sister, said that injuries were “obvious on his hands and his back” when she visited him in prison in 2014. “It’s impossible that my brother would do something like killing,” she added. “He’s just a peaceful protester.”
Mr. Ramadhan said that during his interrogation, security officials touched his buttocks and forced him to stand for hours in a frigid room. They also threatened to sexually assault his wife and sisters in front of him, he said.
A father of three who had previously marched in peaceful pro-democracy protests, Mr. Ramadhan has said his interrogators acknowledged that his political activism made him a target for prosecution. He confessed to protesting, but refused to sign a confession claiming responsibility for the bombing.
“They literally told me that they were waiting for a major case to frame me in it,” he told his wife from prison on July 4, according to a recording of the call. “They said they knew about my participation in protests and demonstrations, and that I betrayed the government.”
Sentenced to death in December 2014, the men have appealed several times, and each time their convictions have stood. Their one break came when, under international pressure over the case, a Bahraini oversight agency announced that it had found a doctor’s report documenting injuries on Mr. Moosa’s wrists that raised the “suspicion that he was subjected to assault and mistreatment.”
That report, the review said, had been overlooked during the initial trial.
Based on the internal review, Bahrain’s high court overturned the two men’s death sentences in October 2018, but a lower court reinstated them in January of this year. The high court reaffirmed the verdict on Monday.
Bahrain has not announced when the two men will be executed. Once the king signs off, however, execution is imminent.
In a statement, an official in Bahrain’s public prosecution office, Haroon Al Zayani, said the convictions were based on victim and witness testimony, physical evidence and technical and forensic reports, none of which he described. He said the evidence also included text messages on the defendants’ phones showing them planning to commit the crimes.
The medical reports documenting Mr. Moosa’s injuries are not “in line with the procedures of the police nor the public prosecution” office, Mr. Al Zayani said. He said the confessions were made “with full consciousness and voluntarily, without any physical or verbal coercion,” and that the men were convicted with “all the requirements of a fair trial.”
The men’s supporters and rights groups have drawn the opposite conclusion, arguing that Bahrain’s courts have been turned into a tool for the kingdom’s crackdown on political opponents.
“I know that no one is listening to me because I do not have much money, I do not have many possessions and I am not famous. However, I want my voice to be heard,” Mr. Ramadhan said in the July call to his wife. “I am innocent of the crime of which I was accused, subjected to a sham trial and sentenced to death.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.