12/13/2011

Baby’s death threatens Bahrain reform agenda

FINANCIAL TIMES
By Simeon Kerr in Dubai

The death of a five-day-old girl has become the latest episode threatening to overshadow attempts by the Bahrain government to lift the state out of a year of protest and repression.
Al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition party, says there is evidence to show that the infant died in her home on Sunday as a result of inhalation of tear gas fired by riot police. A more detailed coroner’s report has been requested, says Jawad Fairouz, a member of al-Wefaq. High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8969c42a-24b2-11e1-ac4b-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1gHAsOdng

But the minority Sunni-led government denied the claims, saying the health ministry had confirmed the cause of death as bacterial meningitis. The government also responded that the interior ministry had said skirmishes near the baby’s house were reported “much later” than the time of death.
The emotive issue comes at a sensitive time for Bahrain. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa held talks on Monday with David Cameron, with the UK prime minister urging Bahrain to press ahead with reforms and reconciliation, including engaging the opposition. The US is sending an envoy to Bahrain to monitor the implementation of recommendations of a damning report by an independent commission of inquiry that reported last month. The UN human rights department is also sending a delegation to Bahrain.
The furore surrounding the death of the baby girl threatens to undermine the government’s stated intention to reform as the economy shows signs of recovery. The central bank says personal loans are growing at their fastest rate in three years as liquidity rises on higher oil prices.
“The data is showing us a slow normalisation after the marked drop-off over the first half of 2011,” says Simon Williams, chief economist at HSBC Middle East. “But global headwinds will hit Bahrain particularly hard in 2012 because of the troubles it experienced earlier this year.”
Question marks also remain over a pending $53m US arms sale to its Gulf ally. Washington has made the deal contingent on reaction to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.
The BICI criticised the “disproportionate” use of tear gas, most of which is produced in the US, especially the firing of canisters near and into homes.
A national commission has been holding meetings to implement the BICI’s recommendations, such as holding officials to account and making military sentences subject to civil court review.
Those recommendations go to the heart of the difficulties of pursuing a reform agenda because they challenge senior officials who oversaw a sustained Saudi-backed crackdown against demonstrators from mid-March.
In the wake of the report, the king removed the head of the feared internal security apparatus but at the same time also named him as a security adviser.
Questioning the seriousness of reform attempts, al-Wefaq has called for the government’s resignation following the BICI report.
“This is a political crisis, not just about rights violations: the regime has not shown a serious attempt to solve our problems. It should be serious about opening political dialogue,” says Mr Fairouz.
The government insists reforms will proceed, saying it will follow through on the report’s recommendations.
Manama has appointed two overseas police officers to oversee security changes, opened prisons to the International Committee of the Red Cross and has referred cases of police brutality to the public prosecution.
The crown prince, the ruling family’s leading reformer, has said Bahrain “won’t be on the wrong side of history”.
But demonstrations continue, with tension building since the report was published. Hundreds of youths have repeatedly tried to retake Pearl roundabout, the epicentre of this year’s demonstrations. Protesters later this week plan to stage “Occupy Budaya Highway” demonstrations along a main road connecting Shia suburbs to the capital.
Inspired by anti-capitalist movements, the protests will pose another post-BICI test of how the security forces react to demonstrations that take place without government approval.
“I fear that people will be mistreated again as they continue protests on a larger scale,” says Mr Fairouz.