x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Reconciliation in Bahrain still faces obstacles

An international investigation of violence in Bahrain has to be even-handed. And even if it is, the long process of reconciliation is just at the beginning.

Six months after demonstrations in the Pearl Roundabout degenerated into violence, Bahrain is still troubled by regular street protests. The crackdown on the opposition and subsequent reconciliation efforts have so far failed to restore complete calm, much less heal the deep political divisions.

There have been efforts. In the past week, an international commission investigating the violence has made some progress. Two former MPs from the opposition Al Wefaq party were set free on Sunday, among 41 prisoners who reportedly have been released.

In the worst of the violence, there was wrongdoing on both sides. But there will be no reconciliation possible unless security forces are held to account. The commission, appointed by King Hamad Al Khalifa, has indicated its readiness to investigate regime loyalists, visiting Al Gareen prison to interview prisoners from the opposition and arresting police officers on charges of torturing detainees. This investigation needs to show its evenhandedness if it is to resolve the bloodshed.

But even that is just a starting point. There needs to be a distinction between investigating the crimes of the recent protests and the fundamental process of reform that was at issue in the first place. It remains clear that only a political solution can provide for Bahrain's future.

For decades, Bahrainis have been negotiating issues including fairness in housing and land allotments, political prisoners, representation in parliament and the constitution. The February protests began as a peaceful, cross-sectarian movement to address these issues. The subsequent violence, encouraged radical elements on both sides and aggravation of the Shiite-Sunni split has only made a resolution more difficult.

Last month a national dialogue that was supposed to begin the reconciliation process ended in a walk-out by Al Wefaq, the only opposition group that attended. It was a disappointing, predictable conclusion: the forum was inordinately skewed towards regime loyalists, the agenda precluded important issues that needed to be addressed and proceedings were closed to the public.

As much as anything else, it is the lack of debate that is unproductive. A high-profile trial of editors at the opposition newspaper Al Wasat has symbolised the clampdown on discussion; the state-run media is widely distrusted.

Bahrainis across the divide need to be part of any reconciliation process. Everyone lost in the recent unrest.