12/14/2011

West urged to back change in Bahrain

FINANCIAL TIMES

By Roula Khalaf in London

Western governments should press Bahrain’s king to sack his government and act consistently with their stance on other Arab uprisings, said the leader of the country’s main Shia opposition party.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Sheikh Ali Salman, head of al-Wefaq, argued that the ruling al-Khalifa family was squandering an opportunity presented by the recommendations of an independent inquiry into rights abuses.
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The report, which was commissioned by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, delivered a damning indictment last month of the conduct of security forces in the suppression of Shia unrest in February and March.
The turmoil in Bahrain, part of the popular protests in the Arab world, raised alarm in the Sunni-dominated Gulf and among western allies of the strategic country that is home to the US navy’s fifth fleet. The Sunni monarchy said the Shia uprising was backed by Iran and called on military assistance from its Gulf neighbours.
Western governments said the report, produced by a team led by war crimes expert Cherif Bassiouni, represented a rare opportunity for national reconciliation. But the continued tensions between the regime and the opposition suggest that Bahrain’s crisis could be heading towards escalation.
The UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, met King Hamad in London on Monday and urged him to go ahead with reforms and engage with the opposition.
“The US and UK should call for an elected, representative government, and a timetable and a road map to achieve that,” said Sheikh Salman. “If this does not happen then they should say that this regime has lost legitimacy. This is what is suitable if they want to talk about democracy and not show double standards in the Arab spring.”
With the US and UK closely scrutinising the implementation of the human rights report’s recommendations, the regime has removed the head of the internal security agency, but named him security adviser, opened prisons to the International Committee of the Red Cross and appointed two foreign police officers to monitor security changes.
The king, however, has shown no sign that he is willing to respond to the main demand of the opposition – the removal of Sheikh Khalifa al-Khalifa, the hardline prime minister who has been in his post for four decades and was a focal point for Shia anger.
Sheikh Salman said allowing the Red Cross into prisons was a welcome move but he remained sceptical about other steps, citing alleged attempts by the government to control the composition of the committee given the task of implementing the recommendations of the report.
Although the human rights commission stopped short of calling for the sacking of the prime minister, Sheikh Salman said it seemed illogical that a government accused of abuses should oversee security reforms.
“We don’t see an intention really to implement the report, they are just trying to provide a decorative picture,” he said. “No one who reads the human rights report would think that the same government accused of the abuses could be allowed to implement the recommendations.” The prime minister should resign, he insisted. “And if not, the king should remove him, that is a normal, logical demand.”
Sheikh Salman insisted that the regime in Bahrain was following the same patterns as in the past – promising improvements but maintaining the status quo. “They don’t look at people as citizens who have rights – so long as this mentality is there, any changes will be limited,” he said.
Whether in Bahrain or in other Gulf monarchies, he said, rulers could no longer ignore the impact of the Arab uprisings. “There is no choice for regimes and people but to move to constitutional monarchies – and any delays are a loss for the people and the governments.”
His concern, he said, was that delaying reforms opened up more grim scenarios, pointing to the prospect of radicalisation among Bahraini youth who might resort to violence.
“All scenarios are bad if the reform path does not move forward,” he said.