Bahrain pledges to act on criticism of crackdown

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Sun Nov 27, 2011 10:58am EST

(Reuters) – Bahrain has announced a commission to steer reforms after an inquiry found systematic rights abuse during a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests this year, but opposition parties said they would not participate.

The U.S. administration has said it will delay a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, pending the government’s response to the inquiry.

Protesters, mainly from Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, took to the streets in February demanding a bigger role for elected representatives and less power for ruling al-Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims. Some Shi’ite groups sought an end to the monarchy altogether.

The protests were followed by a harsh crackdown and two months of martial law. After complaints of abuse and torture, King Hamad set up an inquiry in June to look at the events.

It reported last week that abuse was systematic and called for a commission including opposition figures to implement reforms. Among its recommendations were recruiting more Shi’ites to the security forces, reviewing jail sentences for activists, punishing those to blame for abuse and compensating victims.

“The National Commission will study the recommendations and put forward proposals including with regards to the recommendation on necessary amendments in laws and regulations and how the recommendations can be implemented,” a statement on the official BNA news agency said late on Saturday.

“The Commission will end its work by the end of February in a framework of transparency,” it said, citing a royal decree from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Wefaq, a Shi’ite Islamist party and the largest opposition political bloc in Bahrain, said two of its members had been asked to join the 22-member commission, but that they had not agreed to participate because the party itself was shut out.

“We as a political party have not been approached and we were not consulted over who represents us,” senior Wefaq member Jawad Fairooz told a news conference by five opposition groups.

The commission includes the justice minister and a range of Sunni and Shi’ite businessmen, politicians and rights figures. Only four, however, are considered members of the opposition, including the two Wefaq members and two rights activists.

Fairooz said the commission was dominated by pro-government figures and that the justice minister was responsible for mosque demolitions and criminal cases against doctors, teachers and opposition leaders, which were criticized by the inquiry.

CABINET RESIGNATION CALL

The opposition parties said the charges of rights abuse in the report were serious enough to warrant a cabinet resignation.

Radhi al-Musawi of the Waad party said the commission outlined in the decree, with powers to study, propose and comment, fell short of the language used in the inquiry report, which talked of powers to implement reforms.

The inquiry called for legal action against “those in government who have committed unlawful or negligent acts resulting in the deaths, torture and mistreatment of civilians.”

It said security forces should include Bahrainis from all communities. Sentences linked to political expression should be reviewed, sacked workers given their jobs back, and compensation paid to families of those killed – 35 died during the unrest – and those who suffered torture and incommunicado detention.

It also called on state media to relax censorship and give access to the opposition, and for a “national reconciliation program ” to address political, social and economic grievances.

It is not clear how far the government is prepared to go in negotiations with opposition groups. A “national dialogue” was held in June, but Wefaq walked out and few reforms were agreed.

The foreign minister told Reuters on Friday that opposition parties including Wefaq should take part in the National Commission and that all issues would be on the table. But he later said on Twitter that he was not suggesting the creation of a new political dialogue.

Analysis: Bahrain digests inquiry as protests continue

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Fri Nov 25, 2011 3:30pm EST

(Reuters) – A report that slammed Bahrain for using systematic torture to crush pro-democracy protests has put pressure on the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state to take some steps toward political reform but the opposition doubt anything substantive is in the works.

The hardhitting findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by international rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, vindicated majority Shi’ites and opposition groups over claims of repression during martial law brought in after the government broke the protests up.

The government will have to be seen to implement its recommendations if it wants the U.S. Congress to approve a major arms sale, but it is not clear if hardliners in the ruling family opposed to empowering Shi’ites have the upper hand.

The Sunni-dominated government says it has formed a working group to study the report, which calls for an examination of Shi’ite political, economic and social grievances, but opposition parties say no one has contacted them yet.

“I fear that the government team formed will try to bury the issue. As Bassiouni said, there is a crisis of confidence between the government and opposition,” said Radhi Musawi, deputy secretary-general of the secular Waad party.

“What Bassiouni wrote about is only about 50 percent of what happened. There were acts of rape that he didn’t detail directly,” he said, adding policing remained heavy-handed.

Shi’ites complain of discrimination in jobs, housing, education and government departments, including police and army. They say electoral districts are gerrymandered.

The government has said it is addressing those concerns but the opposition says it has heard such promises for years now and there should be international monitoring of the government’s response to the Bassiouni report.

After martial law was lifted, the king initiated a national dialogue in July that recommended giving parliament more powers to monitor and question ministers, but it did not alter the fundamental balance of power. The elected chamber does not have full legislative powers, nor does it form governments.

Foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said in an interview Friday that reforms would be looked at again.

He told Reuters a national commission would invite opposition, including the main Shi’ite group Wefaq, to look at “all important issues,” both political and security.

ROYALS HEAR OF TORTURE

Senior figures of the ruling al-Khalifa family, including army and security officials listened to an unexpectedly harsh summary of how their agencies had repressed the protest movement this year at a lavish ceremony aired live on state television.

King Hamad, Crown Prince Salman and Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman sat mostly motionless on a podium as Bassiouni recounted the abuses their citizens had suffered to extract confessions and as punishment for protesting against the family.

The report made for harrowing reading: the foreign minister told Reuters he had read it and was “shocked.”

Details from the testimonies from unidentified detainees who the BICI team were given access to included sexual abuse, lost eyes, threat of attacks by dogs, the abuse of wounded hospital patients, electrocution, beatings with hoses and other objects, leaving many with permanent disabilities.

Opposition groups and street protesters who clash with riot police almost daily in Shi’ite villages have been emboldened. Thousands marched in a funeral procession Thursday taunting police with chanted snippets from Bassiouni’s report.

“There is ongoing violence, there are ongoing abuses, there is a complete lack of faith that the government will even read the report,” Alaa Shehabi, daughter of a prominent dissident based in London who opposes al-Khalifa rule, said at the march.

State media and opposition groups have focused on the parts of the BICI report that put their opponents in a bad light.

Government papers lauded Bassiouni comments this week to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya saying there was “no cause for revolution” in Bahrain, but the independent al-Wasat daily cited Bassiouni saying the interior minister and state security agency were responsible for “shortcomings” in investigating torture.

Bassiouni said Wefaq had passed up a genuine opportunity for reform from the crown prince during the protests, in the hope of making gains through street action rather than dialogue. He also said the last instance of mistreatment heard by the inquiry was on June 10, when martial law was over.

HARDLINERS ON BOTH SIDES

Many on the Shi’ite street say they do not want the monarchy at all, although that does not necessarily mean that in future elections they would not continue to give their vote to Wefaq.

If there is any U.S. pressure for some democratic reforms, they could be trumped by Saudi demands that Bahrain not empower Shi’ites, which would embolden its own Shi’ite minority in the nearby Eastern Province. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Many Sunni Bahrainis look to the al-Khalifa as a safety valve against majority Shi’ites and there is pressure on the authorities not to back down. The Bassiouni report acknowledged cases of Shi’ites attacking Sunnis during the uprising.

“I’m optimistic, there is another neutral committee that will be formed by national figures to investigate national reconciliation,” said Samira Rajab, a prominent government loyalist who sits in the appointed upper house of parliament.

“The important thing is for there to be good intentions from the opposition and a will to solve the problems. There are demands that can be discussed within a timeframe.”

But Michael Stephens, a Royal United Services Institute researcher in Qatar, said there was a good chance the ruling family would ride out the storm and avoid critical changes.

“I don’t see how the king can implement more reforms. It would be too damaging to his powerbase and challenge the fundamental underpinnings of how they run the country,” he said.

Bahrain used “excessive force” in crackdown: inquiry

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Wed Nov 23, 2011 6:07pm EST

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s security forces used excessive force to suppress pro-democracy protests earlier this year, torturing detainees to get confessions, an inquiry panel charged with investigating abuses said on Wednesday.

The government commissioned report, designed to help heal sectarian divisions between the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers and majority Shi’ites, acknowledged five people had been tortured to death but said abuses were isolated incidents.

However the inquiry panel, led by Egyptian-American international law expert Cherif Bassiouni, dismissed Bahrain’s allegation of Iranian interference in fomenting unrest, saying that was not supported by any evidence.

“In many cases security agencies in the government of Bahrain resorted to excessive and unnecessary force,” Bassiouni said at the king’s palace, adding that some detainees suffered electric shocks, and beatings with rubber hoses and wires.

Bahrain’s Shi’ite-led opposition reacted cooly to the report, some saying it did not go far enough while others complained that those responsible for the abuses remained in office.

Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Shi’ite Wefaq bloc which quit parliament over the unrest, said: “We cannot say Bahrain is turning a new leaf yet…because the government that carried out all those abuses is definitely not fit to be given the responsibility of implementing recommendations.”

The United States urged its ally Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, to quickly address abuses laid out in the report.

Washington, which has been faulted by rights activists for not criticizing Bahrain more sharply for the crackdown, appeared to carefully balance its demand for the abuses to be addressed with praise for its Gulf ally.

“We are deeply concerned about the abuses identified in the report and urge the Government and all elements of Bahraini society to address them in a prompt and systematic manner,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

“We believe the … report offers a historic opportunity for all Bahrainis to participate in a healing process that will address long-standing grievances and move the nation onto a path of genuine, sustained reform,” Clinton added.

Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets in February and March to demand political reforms but their protests quickly escalated into the worst sectarian political violence since the mid-1990s.

The ruling al-Khalifa family responded by declaring martial law and called in troops from fellow Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as it set about crushing the protests.

The inquiry panel said there was no official policy of abuse during the widespread unrest, led by Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite population demanding an end to sectarian discrimination and demanding a greater say in government. A few Shi’ite groups called for the abolition of the monarchy altogether.

The panel – which said 35 people were killed, including five security personnel – urged a review of sentences handed down on people arrested following the protests, when more than 2,000 state employees were also sacked, according to Bassiouni.

KING RENEWS ACCUSATION AGAINST IRAN

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, speaking after Bassiouni delivered his report, repeated the accusations against Iran, but said laws would be reviewed and if necessary revised in light of the unrest.

“We do not want, ever again, to see our country paralyzed by intimidation and sabotage… nor do we want, ever again, to discover that any of our law enforcement personnel have mistreated anyone,” he said.

“Therefore, we must reform our laws so that they are consistent with international standards to which Bahrain is committed by treaties,” he said.

In a statement, Bahrain noted the inquiry showed five deaths during the unrest were the result of torture, but added: “The report does not confirm that there was a government policy of torture, mistreatment or using excessive force.”

A section of the 500-page report found the security service and interior ministry “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which amounted in many cases to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees.”

Bassiouni also echoed elements of the kingdom’s narrative of the unrest, saying Sunnis were targeted for intimidation by protesters. These included foreigners, including Pakistanis that the opposition say were naturalized because they are fellow Sunnis and employed in security services.

The United States has said a $53 million arms deal depends on the delivery of the report, and Bahrain has already acknowledged security forces used excessive force in some cases, while consistently denying any coordinated policy of torture.

The report follows a state-orchestrated “national dialogue” in the wake of the unrest which opposition groups dismissed as a farce.

The crackdown has left Bahrain polarized along sectarian lines, with low expectations from both sides that the inquiry would lead to reconciliation.

“It should have criticized the opposition that claims to represent the Shi’a, it only criticized the government,” said Sheikh Muhsin al-Asfoor, a pro-government Shi’ite cleric who advises the king on Shi’ite affairs.

Maryam al-Khawaja, an activist with a Bahraini human rights group, suggested the investigation wound up exonerating Bahrain rather than identifying abuses, noting on Twitter: “Minutes after talked of violations…Hamad thanked the police.”

Bahrain admits “excessive force” before rights report

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Nov 21, 2011 6:32pm GMT

(Reuters) – Bahrain admitted Monday its forces had used excessive force and mistreated detainees during pro-democracy protests, as it awaited the release of an independent report expected to criticise the Gulf state’s handling of the unrest.

“The government has carried out its own assessments and conducted its own investigations. These investigations have revealed things to praise as well as things to deplore,” said a cabinet statement sent to Reuters in English.

“Regrettably, there have been instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees. This was in violation of government policy. Twenty prosecutions against the officers involved have been initiated,” it added.

The death of a Bahraini teen-ager after he was run over by police during protests last week has raised the stakes ahead of the release of a report into the government’s crushing of the democracy protest movement early this year.

Sixteen-year-old Ali Yousef al-Sitrawi was killed during a protest in Manama. Officials said a police vehicle lost control because of oil spilt on the road deliberately by protesters, but activists say police often drove straight at them.

More than 40 people have been killed in the unrest which began in February, when thousands of Bahrainis, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and led by the Shi’ite majority, took over Pearl Roundabout in Manama demanding reforms.

A month later Bahrain called in Saudi and UAE troops to help crush the protests and imposed martial law.

The statement said the penal code would be amended to outlaw torture and the government would set up a human rights body.

The Sunni-led government has said the protests were fomented by Shi’ite power Iran and aimed to establish a Shi’ite Islamist republic like Iran’s. Opposition parties say the ruling elite are playing on sectarian fears to avoid reform.

REPORT DUE ON WEDNESDAY

The report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Investigation (BICI) is due to be presented Wednesday to King Hamad who requested the formation of the commission, led by eminent international rights lawyers, in June.

The opposition and majority Shi’ites say they expect it to play down the harshness of the crackdown.

Street protests in Shi’ite districts could erupt after the release of the report, which the government has feted in official media in advance.

Amnesty International urged Bahrain to act on the report’s findings.

“Allowing this independent inquiry … was a very welcome move, but the whole exercise will have been meaningless if the report’s recommendations are not translated into real action to redress abuses,” Philip Luther, an Amnesty regional director, said in a statement.

The cabinet statement said police had suffered over 800 casualties and accused opposition protesters of provocation.

“Our police forces have generally shown admirable restraint when faced with great provocation. Every civilian casualty is a defeat for the government. The extremists know this, and have engaged in reckless provocation,” it said.

“The police have suffered 846 injuries since the beginning of the events; four deaths; innumerable threats and insults, especially to their families.”

The economy of the island state has suffered during the civil unrest. Some banks and other firms have relocated business elsewhere in the Gulf.

Bahrain offered a high interest rate of 6.273 percent on an Islamic bond worth $750 million last week, with less turnout than usual from Asian consumers of debt, in a sign of investor concern about stability in Bahrain.

The government held a “national dialogue” in June which led to some promises of parliamentary reforms. But they stop short of the key opposition demand of giving the elected chamber legislative powers and power to form cabinets.

Bahrain’s government is headed by the world’s longest-serving prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, an uncle of King Hamad who has occupied the post since 1971.

Iran says Bahrain plot claim “baseless”

By Andrew Hammond and Mitra Amiri

DUBAI/TEHRAN, Nov 14 (Reuters) – Iran denied on Monday it had any link to an alleged plot to stage attacks in Bahrain and a lawyer for two accused men said reports they had confessed were not true.

Bahrain said last week Qatar had handed over four men who Manama accuses of planning to attack the Interior Ministry, the Saudi embassy and a causeway linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It said a fifth was arrested in Bahrain.

On Sunday, a Bahraini prosecution spokesman said the plot was coordinated with Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia as well as two Bahraini opposition figures in London.

He told state media that some of the men had confessed to this. But a lawyer for two, speaking to Reuters, said they told their family by telephone that they had not confessed at all.

The allegation surfaced before the expected release of an independent rights commission report on the government’s crushing of a democracy protest movement earlier this year.

Bahrain, a U.S. ally which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, says it is implementing measures to expand democratic government and accuses the main opposition parties of organising protests in coordination with Iran with a Shi’ite sectarian agenda.

Most of the island state’s population is Shi’ite but the Saudi-allied royal family is Sunni Muslim.

“IRANOPHOBIA”

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said the plot was a fabrication driven by “Iranophobia”, replicating a U.S. claim last month to have uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

“Instead of propagandising and presenting baseless claims, Bahraini officials should do something about the large rift that has opened between the government and the people,” Abdollahian said in comments carried by the website of Iran’s al-Aalam TV.

“(These) baseless accusations repeat the comical and fabricated scenario of America.”

Mohsen al-Alawi, lawyer for two of the men, said Isa Ahmed Shamloh, decided to join his friend, driver Ali Abbas Mubarak on a trip to Saudi Arabia for a change of air. He said the driver picked up the two others, Mohammed Sahwan and Emad Abdelhussein, in Saudi Arabia and it was not clear why they had gone to Qatar.

“Shamloh said by telephone that they had not confessed,” Alawi said, adding he hoped to have access to the men next week.

Bahrain named an Iranian, Asad Qasir, as the Revolutionary Guards link who trained one of the arrested men in machinegun and explosives use during a trip to Iran.

Alawi said Qasir was also cited in the case of 21 men sentenced this year for leading the protests of February and March. “They are trying to link the cases,” Alawi said.

Eight of the 21 men, including politicians, clerics, rights activists and a blogger, were found guilty of charges including “forming a terrorist group to change the constitution”.

Tension between Iran and U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states has been high over Iran’s nuclear energy programme, which Gulf rulers fear will give Tehran a nuclear weapon and increase its prestige among ordinary Arabs as a regional leader.

In Kuwait, the Foreign Ministry summoned Iran’s ambassador on Monday over the arrest of two Kuwaitis whom Tehran had said were detained with “spying equipment”, Kuwaiti state media said.

Kuwait’s journalists association said they had entered Iran legally to prepare a TV programme.