An analysis of Serbia’s extradition of Bahraini activist using UAE private jet despite Strasbourg ruling.
Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash
The Bahrain government says Ahmed Jaafar Mohamed Ali was extradited “following an arrest by Interpol and legal process in Serbia”. But Interpol cannot make arrests so what happened?
On 21 January 2022 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued interim measures, known as Rule 39 preventing the extradition of Ahmed Jaafar Mohamed Ali from Serbia to Bahrain until 25 February 2022 pending further information on his case, including the risk of torture on return to Bahrain. On 23 January 2022, a Serbian judge overseeing the case informed the Ministry of Interior and Interpol of the ECtHR interim measure and referred the case to the Ministry of Justice.
At 4am on 24 January 2022 just 4 hours later, two Serbian police officers took Ali from prison to Belgrade airport and handed him over to Bahraini officials on the tarmac. At 5am Ali was flown directly to Manama by Royal Jet, a UAE luxury private airline, in a direct and flagrant breach of the order of the Strasbourg Court.
Ahmed Jaafar Mohamed Ali is a Bahraini labour rights activist who was arrested in 2007 for political activities in Bahrain and allegedly tortured while detained. After his release, and amidst the 2011 uprising, Ali left Bahrain to avoid further persecution. Ali and his family lived in Iran between 2011 and 2021 where they sought asylum on grounds of Ali’s mistreatment and torture in Bahrain.
In November 2021, a few days after arriving in Belgrade, Ali was arrested on the basis of an Interpol Red Notice from Bahrain. The Red Notice alleged terrorist charges including attempted murder of police officers and manufacturing explosives between 2013 to 2015. Ali was imprisoned in Serbia pending a court decision on the extradition request and was denied any contact with his family or a lawyer.
Without any assessment of potential risks of torture or mistreatment on return to Bahrain, his extradition was approved by a Serbian Court on 7 December 2021. Ali’s ex-officio lawyer tried and failed to appeal the decision on grounds of feared persecution. Having exhausted all domestic remedies, his lawyer submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) requesting a review of the Serbian Court decision invoking a potential violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Besides not having been in Bahrain at the time of the alleged offences, Ali had been convicted and sentenced, in absentia, along with nine other defendants in Bahrain in 2013 and again in 2015 along with ten other defendants, three of whom were subsequently executed in what was deemed an extrajudicial killing by the United Nations. The UN Special Procedures’ mandate holders expressed concern about the convictions in an urgent appeal sent to Bahrain in 2017. In particular concerning the irregularities in judicial proceedings and the use of false confessions extracted through torture.
As a Council of Europe member and having signed the European Convention on Human Rights, Serbia was under an obligation to comply with the ECtHR’s legally binding interim measure. In response to a request for information about the wrongful extradition, Serbia told the ECtHR that it did not comply with the interim measure because of the short period of time between the issuance of the ECtHR’s decision and the extradition. It seems more likely that a direct political request by Bahrain overrode the Serbian domestic courts.
Meanwhile, international human rights organisations picked up on the fact that Serbia had chartered a UAE-based private jet company to wrongfully extradite Ali to Bahrain. In a joint letter to Royal Jet, the private jet company based in Abu-Dhabi, NGOs raised concerns that the company had played an active role in violating the ECtHR’s interim measures and article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture, which enshrines the principle of non-refoulement:
“You have also violated the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, under which business enterprises’ responsibility to respect human rights requires that they seek ‘to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.’”
The international community were quick to point out that just two months prior, Major General Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi the Inspector General of the UAE Interior Ministry, had been elected president of Interpol. The Guardian reported that Royal Jet is headed by a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family and part-owned by Presidential Flight, the company responsible for transporting members of the Abu Dhabi government. Al-Raisi is currently under investigation for overseeing gross human rights violations in the UAE.
Interpol’s role in Ali’s extradition remains uncertain. Bahrain’s interior ministry described the extradition as a “joint operation”, with Interpol, and its public prosecution said Ali was “extradited from Serbia with the help of Interpol”. Interpol maintains that extraditions are a bilateral matter between member countries and nothing to do with Interpol. An Interpol spokesperson at the time of the extradition said:
“Interpol’s general secretariat cannot instruct NCBs on whether to arrest an individual or refrain from doing so, whether to engage in extradition proceedings, etc. Such decisions are exclusively within the discretion of the competent national authorities of member countries.”
Bahrain has a history of abusing the Interpol system in order to place improper pressure on a number of different types of people including critics of the Government and human rights activists. In November 2018, a Red Notice issued at Bahrain’s request against footballer Hakeem al-Araibi led him to spend 76 days in detention in Thailand despite being recognized as a refugee by the Australian authorities. In 2016, al-Araibi publicly criticised a member of Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family, for allegedly failing to help him and other footballers targeted by Bahrain security forces. In a 2016 interview with the New York Times al-Araibi spoke of the torture he had experienced while detained in Bahrain. Following considerable international pressure the Bahraini government withdrew the extradition request and al-Araibi returned to Australia.
There is also the case of Ali Haroon, a Bahraini who was arrested in Thailand in 2014 on the basis of an Interpol Red Notice at Bahrain's request. It was reported by Amnesty International that five days after his arrest, Thai authorities handed Haroon to Bahraini authorities at Bangkok airport where he was allegedly “sedated and beaten by the [Bahrain] police,” before being extradited to Bahrain where his injuries required hospitalisation. Haroon’s extradition took place in spite of reports by human rights organisations that he was tortured in Bahrain in 2013 for his role in the country’s pro-democracy movement. Amnesty International stated there were credible reports that Haroon was tortured on return to Bahrain.
On 14 June 2022 the Strasbourg court asked Serbia a series of questions about what had happened in Ali's extradition to Bahrain and the case remains pending before the Strasbourg court, Application 4622/22. It is of considerable concern that Bahrain abused the Interpol system to detain him and then it seems that Serbia cooperated with Bahrain in direct contravention of the court order.