11/24/2011

Bahrain Opposition Hopes Rights Report Leads to Wider Reform

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By ALEX DELMAR-MORGA

 MANAMA, Bahrain—Bahraini opposition figures are seizing on a hard-hitting report that condemned the government for its punishing crackdown on pro-democracy protesters this year, hoping it will lead to an end to months of political deadlock on the Gulf island. The publication of the inquiry, which accused Bahrain's authorities of using excessive force and widespread torture on protesters earlier in the year, could pave the way for renewed talks between the opposition and the regime, analysts and the opposition say. Talks between the mainstream opposition and the government broke down in March. The day after the report's release, police clashed with youths in A'ali on the outskirts of the capital, where thousands of mourners marched at a funeral for a man killed Wednesday in the village. Rights groups say the man was killed when a police vehicle collided with his car; the government blames his death on a traffic accident. The ruling family is under pressure to implement recommendations in the report, which include setting up an independent body made up of government and opposition members to carry out reform and to hold to account those responsible for torture and other crimes. The government also is being pushed to go beyond the recommendations of the report, which focuses on ending torture and other human-rights abuses but doesn't contain suggestions for political reform. Mainly Shiite antigovernment protesters led massive rallies in February and March, demanding greater rights and reforms for their majority community, with some calling for the downfall of the monarchy. The protesters complain the minority Sunnis get better jobs, pay and housing. "The commission's work does not involve political issues or negotiations," the inquiry, led by respected Egyptian human-rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, said in its 500-page report, published Wednesday. Some analysts fear the government will focus on the recommendations in the Bassiouni report and sidestep calls for political reform. "It is unlikely that the reforms [the government] will implement will solve the key structural political problems of the country," said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in Qatar. "The King won't implement major political reforms because it will erode the power base upon which his rule relies; it is therefore highly unlikely that the core problems in Bahrain will be solved." Nearly 50 people were killed during Bahrain's nine-month long unrest, which peaked in February and March. Hundreds were arrested and imprisoned, and thousands of protesters were sacked from public and private-sector jobs. Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest opposition party, which has long called for Bahrain to have a proper constitutional monarchy and a Parliament with full legislative powers, hopes the report recommendations will lead to discussions about political reform. "Enough is enough," said Abdul Jalil Khalil of Wefaq. "We are ready to sit together; we don't want to close any doors." Wefaq boycotted elections in September to replace its 18 members of the lower house of Parliament who quit in protest in February over the regime's crackdown on protesters. The party, which rejected reforms offered by the Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in March, remains the strongest opposition force in the country. A Bahrain government spokesman played down the likelihood of a quick resumption of talks with the opposition. "We don't know when in the future there will be any talks; we need fertile ground to proceed," he said. Mr. Khalil of Wefaq said his party won't accept focusing only on the report proposals in any future talks with the government. "This will escalate the problems in Bahrain," he said. Bahrain Sunni rulers on Thursday were digesting the findings of the inquiry, set up by the Gulf state's ruler in late June after international condemnation for its brutal suppression of demonstrators demanding greater rights. Government officials said hard-liners in the regime, representing the monarchy's more conservative wing, are unhappy with the findings and may try to slow the implementation of its recommendations. Lateefa Algaoud, an independent member of Parliament, said the report was too critical of the government. She dismissed its claim that it found no clear evidence linking Iran to the unrest. "It is obvious that Iran is playing a big role in this; the intervention for us is clear," she said. Bahrain has repeatedly accused neighboring Iran of fomenting violence in the Gulf state