11/23/2011

BAHRAIN: Report Details Excessive Force Used Against Bahrain Protests

NEW YORK TIMES

 By NADA BAKRI

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The head of an international commission investigating Bahrain’s sweeping crackdown on antigovernment protests over the summer said on Wednesday that security forces used excessive force, including torture and forced confessions, against detainees in a campaign that deeply polarized the country, a prominent American ally in the Gulf. The comments by M. Cherif Bassiouni, a renowned expert in international law who led the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, were the first details from the long-awaited report, which has emerged as a seminal moment for Bahrain. Alone among the nations rocked by the mass protests of the Arab Spring, Bahrain has managed to quell its popular revolt, largely through coercive force. But tensions between the Shiite Muslim majority in the country and the Sunni ruling elite have worsened, and a country that was once one of the Gulf’s most cosmopolitan is today one of its most divided. Aides to the king hoped that the report would offer a starting point for reconciliation, but the opposition has signaled that the report would probably fall short. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who appointed the commission, spoke at the televised news conference on Wednesday before Mr. Bassiouni presented the report.
The king said that officials involved in abuses during the crackdown would be held accountable and replaced, and he pledged to heed the report’s findings. “We do not tolerate the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners,” the king said. “We are dismayed to find that it has occurred, as your report has found.” He added, “We must reform our laws to bring them in line with international standards.” The king pointedly cited wrongs that he said were committed by both sides in the conflict between protesters and the government, and again blamed Iran for the unrest, but gave no specific evidence for the claim. In a statement issued following the release of the report, the Bahraini government said that the investigation showed that five detainees had died of torture. The statement denied that the abuses were the result of an official policy of systematic violence, as the opposition has claimed.
The report said that the troops from neighboring Gulf countries who intervened in Bahrain during the crisis did not violate human rights. Those troops, led by Saudi Arabia, were believed to have deployed to military bases to make more Bahraini forces available for use in the streets; their arrival marked a decisive turn in the crisis and escalated tensions with neighboring Iran. “The commission did not find any proof of human rights violations caused by the presence of the Peninsula Shield forces,” Mr. Bassiouni said. The government statement said that Bahrain “accepts” the criticisms of the commission. “We took the initiative in asking for this thorough and detailed inquiry to seek the truth and we accept it,” it said. The king appointed the commission over the summer, naming five commissioners with international reputations to look into the unrest and the state’s response. The 489-page report delivered on Wednesday, based on more than 5,000 interviews with protesters, residents and foreign nationals, is one of the most comprehensive examinations of any of the uprisings and crackdowns that have roiled the Arab world this year. The commission attracted controversy along the way, as Mr. Bassiouni’s statements to journalists frequently incited anger among the Shiite-led opposition. In a view echoed by American officials, Mr. Bassiouni has hoped that the report would help reinforce figures in the government who are perceived as moderate, but its effects will depend on how much resistance its recommendations meet from within the ruling family and on whether the opposition regards it as thorough and fair.
The report was cautious in its suggestions about how to address the imbalance in political power between the Sunni elite and a Shiite majority that feels disnefranchised. In the report, the commission recommends “a national reconciliation program that addresses the grievances of groups which are, or perceive themselves, to be deprived of equal political, social and economic rights and benefits.” In a grim sign of the problems that still beset Bahrain, police clashed with protesters in at least two Shiite villages on Wednesday, only a few hours before the report was released. Human rights activists and residents said that the police used rubber bullets and tear gas, and that at least two people were killed. One was a boy who died after inhaling tear gas, activists said; the other was a man killed in a car crash that some accounts said was caused by a speeding police vehicle.
Anthony Shadid contributed reporting from Cairo.