An independent commission in Bahrain today documented abuses by the country's security forces during Arab Spring uprisings and offered a set of recommendations that could help the oil-rich kingdom restore its image with Western allies.
Before an audience that included the king, dignitaries, activists, and foreign media, the head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) – respected Egyptian lawyer M. Cherif Bassiouni – also decried a culture of impunity among the country’s leaders. Mr. Bassiouni called for another independent body to ensure that changes are made to prevent a repeat of the violence.
How the report is implemented will affect not just the 1.2 million inhabitants of this tiny Gulf peninsula, but the country’s geopolitical future as well. The United States, which houses its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, suspended a $53 million arms sale pending the report's findings. Acting on the recommendations may be Bahrain’s last hope to put the violence behind it.
“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.
“If [these] recommendations are taken seriously, then you may well find that you’re able to turn the corner.”
The BICI, established June 29 with a budget of $1.3 million, was part of the government’s response to protests that rocked Bahrain since majority Shiite protesters first took to the streets to demand a more representative government in February.
Drawing on 9,000 testimonies, the 500-page report offers an extensive chronology of events, documenting 46 deaths, 559 allegations of torture, and more than 4,000 cases of employees in both the public and private sector being dismissed for participating in protests. It also criticized the security forces for many instances when “force and firearms were used in an excessive manner that was, on many occasions, unnecessary, disproportionate, and indiscriminate.”
For example, hooded men systematically broke into suspects’ houses between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., "terrorizing" the inhabitants, the report says.
Torture is also documented explicitly. Cases of electrocution, stress positions, hanging, beating detainees of the soles of their feet, and verbal abuse were among the violations cited.
Notably, it found that certain abuses, such as destruction of property, "could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure" – an indication that abuses were systemic.
Bassiouni blamed the Sunni government's crackdown – which has included such tactics as night raids and the dismantling of religious structures – for exacerbating sectarian tensions in the Shiite-majority country. The report also discredited the government's arguments that the unrest had been stirred by Shiite Iran.
Speaking immediately after Bassiouni, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa promised to examine the report and use it as a template for reform: “... we are determined, God willing, to insure that the painful events are not to be repeated, but that we learn from them and use our new insights as a catalyst for positive change,” he told the audience. He vowed to set up a committee to examine the report and propose recommendations “urgently."
The report was seen as a last-ditch attempt to bring Bahrain’s increasingly polarized sides together. Past concessions from the regime and attempts at dialogue have all fallen flat – in large part because the crackdown has continued.
To this end, the commission’s findings included recommendations for establishing an independent body to implement reforms, training for security forces in upholding international human rights standards, compensation for victims, and the separation of the judiciary from the interior ministry.
Responding to these suggestions, the king promised to “waste no time in benefiting from [the commission’s] work.... your report provides a historical opportunity for Bahrain to deal with issues that are both serious and urgent.”
Yet opposition activists remained skeptical that promises would come to fruition given that past promises remain unfulfilled, says Said Yousif, a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
“The king promised back in February to make an investigation and all that, but it seems to be that there was no change,” says Mr. Yousif. “We hope that this time Bassiouni’s recommendations will be implemented.... Our [past] experience is different, but let’s be optimistic.”
Indeed, while the report was released to great fanfare at the king’s Safriya Palace, on the streets of Manama, the mood was tense. By mid-morning, several small protests had erupted and security forces responded with tear gas.
Human rights activists say that the continued suppression of protests is just one example of how the same violations the commission is intended to report on continue unabated. “There are still violations ongoing,” said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “This shows that [the government] doesn’t yet have the political willingness to change things."
Political opposition cautiously optimistic
The main political opposition, Al-Wefaq, expressed cautious hope. Jassim Hussain, a former Wefaq member of parliament who resigned after the violent crackdown, says that his party was still interested in negotiating with the government to find a way out of the current political deadlock.
“I think [we have] made it very clear that dialogue is the only way forward,” he says. “But for now, the ball is in the government’s court.”
The opposition’s demands are relatively modest: Hussein says that Wefaq would like to see a more representative and responsive government, for example with a stronger parliament. Wefaq is also demanding an independent judiciary and a halt to what they see as the gerrymandering of voting districts.
Some analysts worry, however, that Bahrain has become too polarized for dialogue to even be an option. “It’s not just regime and the protesters anymore,” says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “Within those camps, you have the hard-liners and the doves.” The intervening months of violence and mistrust, he argues, have empowered the hard-liners on both sides.
Within the regime, Hiltermann says that those who favor a harsh crackdown are “solidly on the saddle.” And on the streets, he says, “A lot of people are not going to support Wefaq because they don’t believe that they represent them. If Wefaq tries to represent ‘the opposition,’ they might well face street protests against them. They have to be very, very careful.”