x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

As inquiry into violent unrest begins, families of Bahrain's dead want only the truth

Majeed Ahmed Mohammed's family do not want revenge for his death during Bahrain's protests earlier this year, nor compensation for Mohammed's wife and five children. 'We want nothing, except for the killers to be brought for justice.'

Mourners demonstrate after the burial of Majeed Ahmed Mohammed in Sehla, Bahrain, earlier this month, four months after he went missing at the height of pro-reform protests. Mazen Mahdi / EPA
Mourners demonstrate after the burial of Majeed Ahmed Mohammed in Sehla, Bahrain, earlier this month, four months after he went missing at the height of pro-reform protests. Mazen Mahdi / EPA

MANAMA // At an intersection in the village of Sehla, the only clue to the mystery of how Majeed Ahmed Mohammed disappeared and died was a convex traffic mirror pockmarked with small dents left by shotgun pellets.

One of the tasks of a special board of inquiry set up by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa last month is to shed light on how and why Mohammed and at least 30 other people were killed during the political unrest that convulsed Bahrain earlier this year.

It is a formidable job, not least because of the emotions that still swirl around the tumultuous events of February and March. Last week, several of Mohammed's relatives, accompanied by a reporter, gathered at the intersection where a damaged traffic mirror gave a hint of the violence that may have overtaken him. They examined the mirror's marred reflection and recalled the night of March 15.

It was the peak of protests demanding pro-democracy reforms. Mohammed, a Shiite, had been walking from the five-room home he shared with 20 family members, including brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, to get some bread and drinks from the Al Jazeera bakery. Many residents had shuttered their windows and locked their doors, afraid to go into streets patrolled by police officers. At around 8pm, gunfire rang out, but by the time the family realised that the 30-year-old Mohammed was missing and his brothers went to the intersection, he was gone.

He surfaced the day after in Salmaniya Hospital with severe injuries to the right side of his head. He underwent surgery but on March 17, he disappeared into the custody of military doctors for more than three months and did not surface until July 2 when his older brother, Abbas Abdulaal, received a phone call.

"They said he was dead," Mr Abdulaal, 58, said. "We could collect the body."

A government death certificate, reviewed by The National, lists "severe head injury" as the cause of death. Whether the wounds were caused by blunt trauma or gunshots is not indicated.

Photographs of the body show what appear to be bullet wounds and a long cut where surgeons had attempted to repair damage to his brain. All told, 11 of the 31 deaths confirmed so far during the protests were the result of shotgun wounds, according to newspaper reports and human rights groups.

A Bahrain government spokesman declined to comment about the cause of Mohammed's death, which leaves the special board of inquiry with the responsibility to investigate the circumstances of his demise.

The fact-finding panel, known formally as the Royal Independent Investigation Commission, is one of several initiatives undertaken by the Bahraini government in response to the civil unrest earlier this year.

The panel was set up by King Hamad after consulting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is led by Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American human rights expert and law professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

In a speech at Al Sakhir Palace, the king said a crucial requirement for progress would be a full accounting of the events.

"We need to look back and to determine exactly what happened in February and March, and to consider the reactions to those events. There were victims of the violence that took place. They must not be forgotten. There have been accusations and counter-accusations about the origins of the violence. A lack of confidence has prevailed, and disagreements have led to conflicting beliefs about events, even if such beliefs are founded only on rumours."

The investigation would be independent in its examination of the deaths and an estimated 1,000 arrests, Mr Bassiouni said.

"Everything that has happened in Bahrain will be investigated and all claims will be probed," he said. "We need to get to the bottom of things and we will certainly leave politics out."

The establishment of the commission came just days before the start earlier this month of reconciliation talks, another government initiative. Participants in the "National Dialogue", which continues until the end of July, include some 300 participants from political parties, journalists, human rights lawyers and other members of Bahraini society.

The dialogue has been boycotted by some groups and criticised by others who are taking part in it. Delegates to the meeting from the secular leftist party Wa'ad, for instance, have worn buttons with the image of Ebrahim Sharif, the Sunni secretary general of the party, who was sentenced to five years for "plotting to topple the government" on June 22.

Weighing on the dialogue, too, is the fact that only a fraction of more than 2,000 people who were laid off in the aftermath of the protests have been reinstated in their jobs. A separate government commission has been set up to investigate the firings.

Whether the various government-sponsored initiatives can bring a semblance of peace and reconciliation to Bahrain matters greatly to Mohammed's family.

Back in Sehla, sitting in a small carpeted room with lime-green walls and a television, Mohammed's older brother said he does not want revenge for the death. Nor has he called for compensation for Mohammed's wife and five children.

"We want nothing, except for the killers to be brought for justice," Mr Abdulaal said. "They should confirm what happened exactly."

In the other rooms, relatives sat in circles remembering Mohammed. Several women, cloaked in abayas, smoked shisha pipes. A dozen children ran around and climbed over their parents.

Mohammed was not a politically active man, they said. He was unemployed and earned a small living from odd jobs given to him by his father to repair and clean cars. His death, they said, tore the social fabric of Sehla and led to some of the bigger protests in Bahrain over the past weeks.

Riot police patrolled the streets of the city on July 2, the first day of Mohammed's funeral, and dozens of young men stormed their lines with rocks. The police responded with tear gas and dispersed the crowds late in the night. More clashes took place on the next two days, prompting a interior ministry official to call a news conference to explain that the police would use a minimum amount of force to stop illegal protests.

Even months after the most violent protests, the atmosphere remains tense throughout the capital. Police checkpoints still ring the Pearl Roundabout, where a massive sit-in was routed by hundreds of officers in riot gear. Armed forces from Saudi Arabia and police from the UAE were still in the country to protect critical infrastructure.

"We don't know what will happen," said one of Mohammed's brothers-in-law, who refused to be named, fearing retribution. "But we will not forget his death. We want the truth."