Bahrain’s authorities used torture and excessive force against protesters during the March crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, the head of a special commission said today.
The information ministry and national security agency employed “a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture,” says the 500-page report.
The investigation found no evidence of Iranian links to the Shia-led protest movement, said Egyptian-born jurist Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, who led the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, “in a clear rebuke Gulf leaders” who claim that Tehran is behind the unrest.
“All those who have broken the law or ignored lawful orders and instructions will be held accountable,” the Bahraini government said in response to the report.
But opposition and human rights groups dismissed the government’s claims, noting that security forces were assaulting and detaining dissidents (above) as the report was being launched.
“Good grief, as we analyze whether BICI offers way forward, Bahraini security carrying out business as usual,” tweeted Rutgers University analyst Toby Jones. “Can it be any clearer?”
The commission proposes “a national reconciliation program that addresses the grievances of groups which are, or perceive themselves, to be deprived of equal political, social and economic rights and benefits.”
The Obama administration said that the report’s recommendations should serve as a foundation for advancing reconciliation and reform.
“It is now incumbent upon the government of Bahrain to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and put in place institutional changes to ensure that such abuses do not happen again,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
But Al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition group, said that a “national salvation government” was required to ensure reconciliation and chart a path for reform.
“We cannot say Bahrain is turning over a new leaf yet… because the government that carried out all those abuses is definitely not fit to be given the responsibility of implementing recommendations,” said party leader Sheikh Ali Salman.
The report found that troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s intervention force did not violate human rights.
“The commission did not find any proof of human rights violations caused by the presence of the Peninsula Shield forces,” Bassiouni said.
The report provides what The New York Times calls “one of the most comprehensive examinations of any of the uprisings and crackdowns that have roiled the Arab world this year”:
Alone among the nations rocked by the mass protests of the Arab Spring, Bahrain has managed to quell its popular revolt, largely through coercive force. But tensions between the Shiite Muslim majority in the country and the Sunni ruling elite have worsened, and a country that was once one of the Gulf’s most cosmopolitan is today one of its most divided. Aides to the king hoped that the report would offer a starting point for reconciliation, but the opposition has signaled that the report would probably fall short.
Bahraini opposition and rights activists say the report will be used to scapegoat individual members of the security services – probably migrant workers – in an attempt to gloss over the systematic repression of the reform movement.
A report from Bahraini rights groups, also published this week, documented 45 killings by security forces, 1,500 instances of arbitrary arrest, 1,866 of torture, 2,710 summary dismissals and the expulsion of 477 students for allegedly participating in the protests.
“Society as a whole was targeted through the arbitrary arrest of doctors, nurses, teachers, academics, athletes, businessmen, and prominent opposition leaders who called for peaceful democratic change,” said the report.
While some analysts believe the Bassiouni report could provide an opportunity for a new social compact in Bahrain, others are more pessimistic.
“In every crisis, there do come forks in the road,” says Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Institution in Doha. “On one path you get to an intensification, and then the other path does offer an opportunity for compromise and to make progress. This report does offer that [opportunity] because we all know that we needed something that would help a new political agreement, and that is first and foremost what is needed.”
But political shifts within the regime have seen hardliners edging out moderates, writes Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. And recent history does not provide much encouragement.
“Bahrainis have seen all this before,” she notes:
The uprising in the 1990s was followed by a general amnesty and political opening in 2001 before subsequent measures watered-down the initial promises. The events of 2010-11 marked the definitive end of this cycle of reform and repression. Its memory (and the fact that many of those who chose to engage are now in prison) now makes it all the more difficult to win popular trust and political re-engagement for this next attempt at national reconciliation. There is also a danger that the hollowing out of the middle ground will complicate the next steps. New actors have appeared on the scene, notably the February 14th youth movement, and may be less inclined to operate within older lines of “official opposition.” Meanwhile, the polarization of Bahraini society, largely along sectarian grounds, has left a poisonous legacy that continues to shape very different narratives about what happened in Bahrain, and why. It is very unlikely that the release of today’s report will do much to change this precarious situation.
The state news agency’s misleading spin on the Bassiouni report hardly suggests goodwill on the government’s part, NPR reports:
— BICI Report Uncovers many Medics’ Crimes, which blames doctors for spreading misinformation about the protests.
— BICI report shows crimes against Sunni people by demonstrators, which says the report finds “serious crimes carried out by the demonstrators in Bahrain.”
As a strategic ally and host to the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain presents the Obama administration with an especially acute dilemma in reconciling interests and ideals, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded recently.
“Meaningful reform and equal treatment for all Bahrainis are in Bahrain’s interest, in the region’s interest, and in ours—while endless unrest benefits Iran and extremists,” she told the National Democratic Institute. The administration would press the monarchy to honor its commitments to permit peaceful protest, and hold accountable “those who cross lines in responding to civil unrest.”