Bahrain Is Criticized for Slow Pace of Change

Bahrain Is Criticized for Slow Pace of Change

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Cherif Bassiouni, a respected Egyptian-born human-rights lawyer whose scathing report a year ago accused the Bahraini government of torturing detainees and using excessive force against protesters, told The Wall Street Journal that the island is mired in a deeper crisis than it was 12 months ago, as a schism widens between increasingly radicalized wings of the opposition and the regime, fueling more violence.

He said Bahrain had made significant headway in many areas, including overhauling the security forces, which clash with protesters on an almost daily basis. But he said it was "troublesome" that only one member of the security forces had been convicted of abuses against protesters. By contrast, nine protesters have been prosecuted for allegedly killing four policeman.

"The numbers speak for them themselves," he said. "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that if you have approximately 200 cases and you refer only nine cases to trial in a period of a year and you have one conviction.…It doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory result."

The Bahrain government acknowledged it has been slow to act on the issue of accountability of those accused of abuses, but said it remained committed to implementing all of Mr. Bassiouni’s recommendations.

"I think what [Bassiouni] said is fair—it is not far from the facts," said Samira Rajab, Bahrain’s minister of state for Information Affairs. "We have some problems [identified in this week’s report] with accountability—we have to get the answers and find out why."

Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil ever since demonstrations against the Sunni-led government erupted in February 2011, in the early days of the Arab Spring. Protesters called for more rights and better jobs and demanded an end to what they said is widespread discrimination against the Shiite majority.

After receiving backing from troops from Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s minority Sunni rulers launched a crackdown, arresting and imprisoning thousands of mostly Shiite protesters.

In response to international condemnation, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa commissioned the inquiry in June 2011, which was led by Mr. Bassiouni and a team of international lawyers and human-rights experts.

The 490-page report produced at the end of the three-month investigation suggested overhauls to the security services and the release of political prisoners, and urged that government officials should face justice for any human-rights violations.

The U.S. wants the government to implement the recommendations because it sees political stability in Bahrain as paramount in countering the regional influence of Shiite heavyweight Iran. Shiites make up between 60% and 70% of Bahrain’s population of 525,000.

This week, the government said that of the 19 protesters Mr. Bassiouni’s report said security services killed, eight cases involving 12 individuals—including a police first lieutenant—had been sent the courts, leading to one conviction.

Five protesters died in custody after being tortured, the report said. In relation to this, nine cases involving 11 police officers are being tried, the government said, after it received 122 complaints of mistreatment and torture.

Mr. Bassiouni said there had been no investigations of the the officers’ superiors.

"If you have a sergeant who goes into a cell and tortures somebody and you have a lieutenant who is sitting outside the cell at his desk and pretends he doesn’t hear the screams, that lieutenant should be prosecuted," he said.

He criticized the lack of progress on releasing political prisoners—another recommendation in his report—although Ms. Rajab said most political prisoners had been freed.

Mr. Bassiouni said the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites in Bahrain had widened, hindering the chances of a political settlement between the government and the opposition.

"Over the last year, has there been sufficient progress made in the area of dialogue and reconciliation? Yes or no? The answer is no, whoever is to blame for it," Mr. Bassiouni said.

Confrontations between demonstrators and police have occurred on an almost-daily basis since the uprising was put down, though violence has increased in recent weeks. This month, five bombs exploded in the Bahraini capital, killing two expatriates and further escalating tensions. The government has also banned all protest gatherings.

"Radicalization and increased level of violence—these are natural processes when two groups are fighting each other when they have grievances," Mr. Bassiouni said. Necessarily at the end you have a situation that is worse than when it began."

He praised the Bahraini government in its efforts to overhaul the police, who are exercising greater restraint amid an increased level of violence from protesters, many of whom now use gasoline bombs and other homemade devices, he said.

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