x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Bahrain welcomes findings of abuse report

In response to independent inquiry into human rights abuses during civil unrest, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has vowed reforms.

MANAMA // The official independent inquiry into human rights abuses in Bahrain during civil unrest demanding political reform this year delivered a blunt assessment yesterday, describing to systematic torture and ill-treatment.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) has spent five months investigating rights violations in the island kingdom at the request of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Sir Nigel Rodley, one of the BICI commissioners and a former Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, said the investigation had found a "systematic practice of torture and similar ill-treatment and of excessive use of force".

"The excessive use of force covering both the manner of detention, arrests in the middle of the night without warrant, beating down doors, terrorising the families inside and then just holding people incommunicado detention and literally physically and verbally subjecting them to very serious ill-treatment," he said.

"We have found that this was such a coordinated and consistent practice right the way across [the board] that it has to be considered as systematic."

Bahrain has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests erupted in February, before they were quashed by security forces in March.

After months of speculation about how the inquiry would describe the scale of the abuses that followed, the BICI report found there had been systematic human rights violations, including a pattern of excessive use of force, which in some cases led to deaths.

"The BICI was keen to be very transparent and independent in all its endeavours and investigate the truth of allegations of human rights violations," the commission's chairman, Cherif Bassiouni, who has held several human rights positions with the United Nations, said in a speech that highlighted specific violations including mistreatment of detainees, demolition of religious buildings, the expulsion of university students.

In his response, King Hamad described the report as "of profound value to us" and vowed reforms.

"By taking to heart your findings and recommendations, the people of Bahrain can make this day one that will be remembered in the history of this nation," he said.

After it's own investigations, the government announced this week security personnel had used excessive force in the crackdown and vowed to punish those responsible and toughen laws.

The king also pledged to hold those responsible for offences accountable and ordered a working group be set-up by the government to study the report's recommendations. In his speech, he also said the government would enlist the help of international experts to advise on improvements in law enforcement and judiciary.

Yesterday, just a few hours before the release of the report, a man was killed in suspicious circumstances in the village of Ali, that prompted more protests before police moved in with tear gas.

The government has maintained that while mistreatment has occurred, it was carried out by individuals within the security forces.

Bahraini human rights groups, along with members of the opposition, have already concluded the violations were systematic and widespread.

In a statement, a Bahraini government spokesman welcomed the findings of the report and acknowledged the criticisms.

"Regrettably the report confirms that there have been instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees, as well as five deaths as a result of torture," he said.

"Those responsible are among 20 officers already being prosecuted. But the report does not say that there was a government policy of torture, mistreatment, or using excessive force. It also notes that the systematic practice of mistreatment ceased after June 10."

Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, a former MP and member of Al Wefaq, the main opposition party, said he and other members of the opposition felt "relieved" by the findings.

Among the many issues Mr Bassiouni addressed in his speech was that the commission had found no proof linking the unrest in Bahrain to Iran, as the government has alleged.

"We were very pleased that he said there was no evidence of Iranian interference," said Mr Al Mosawi. "This will help us because we wanted to get rid of this allegation."

Mariwan Hama-Saeed from Human Rights Watch was one of several representatives from international rights organisations present at the launch and said the inquiry appeared to have confirmed the findings of many reports by rights groups, including serious violations.

"We weren't surprised by the inclusion of cases of torture, but I was certainly happy that he [Mr Bassiouni] mentioned them in his speech," he said.

The commission's findings could also have implications for Bahrain's relationship with the United States, which delayed a proposed $53 million (Dh194.6m) arms sale to Bahrain until after the report's release.

The US has been one of the largest arms suppliers to Bahrain, which is also home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

The BICI - led by a panel of five non-Bahraini jurists and legal scholars - was set up in June by King Hamad as a fact-finding commission independent of the government.

The almost 500-page report is the result of an investigations that saw more than 9,000 complaints lodged from across the political divide and more than 5,000 interviews with alleged victims.

While the report found most of the abuses took place between February and June, the country still remains in crisis.

Pro-democracy demonstrations continue almost daily, frequently followed by the use of force by security personnel.

Many have viewed the BICI report as a way forward and a means to heal the deep sense of mistrust that how exists in the kingdom. But opposition activists have stressed that the commission should not be seen as a solution to a protracted political problem that predates the crisis that flared up in February.

zconstantine@thenational.ae