Back to Square One in Bahrain

Hundreds and hundreds of us trooped into the King of Bahrain’s palace on Wednesday afternoon for the presentation of the much-hyped Bassiouni report. Cherif Bassiouni, head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) gave a 45-minute verbal summary of his 500-page report as we – and the senior members of the Al Khalifa royal family – listened. Clearly relishing the attention, Bassiouni reminded the audience of government officials, NGOs, diplomats and media, how he had been appointed by King Hamad to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses in the government crackdown of democracy protests this year. Speaking from the podium to a room the size of a football field, replete with thick carpet and chandeliers the size of trucks, Bassiouni announced what HRF and other international human rights organizations had been saying for many months – that thousands of people were detained, many tortured in custody, some until they died. That the criminal justice system is a farce, that those accused had confessions tortured out of them, and were denied their rights to proper legal access or fair trials. That more than a dozen civilians were killed by security forces, and that thousands more have been dismissed from their jobs or university places because of perceived association with the protests. The King apparently didn’t believe the world’s most credible media outlets and human rights organizations when we repeatedly reported these abuses day after day for many months, so he established and paid for his own commission which – d’oh – confirmed what we’d been saying. King Hamad was on a podium flanked on one side by his son and heir, the Crown Prince, the reputed “reformer” in the family whose failure to broker a deal with the protestors in March led to the arrival of Saudi troops, the violent crackdown and his own loss of power within the government. To the king’s other side was his uncle the hardliner, whose brutal response to calls for reform trumped the Crown Prince’s approach. He has been the kingdom’s unelected Prime Minister since 1971, when Nixon was enjoying his first term and The Bee Gees topped the US charts (“How Do You Mend A Broken Heart?”). The royals listened to Bassiouni as he was alternately fawningly polite and blisteringly critical of their government. The three sat behind an absurdly gigantic desk which, as Bassiouni listed incidents of torture at their detention centers, appeared to diminish them physically and morally. They sat totem-faced as he described how large numbers of detainees had been blindfolded, beaten, electrocuted and threatened with rape by their security forces. Awkward. The king finally responded with an interestingly defensive line of argument about how the European Court of Human Rights frequently criticizes European states but that the international community doesn’t refer to them as “oppressive governments”. He said he was “dismayed to find” that the mistreatment of prisoners and detainees had occurred, suggesting he hasn’t read many newspapers or watched much TV news this year. He also promised to respond positively to the recommendations in the report by setting various working groups and implementation mechanisms. He spoke for 15 minutes, finishing with a flourishing tirade against Iranian propaganda before the deflating admission that “the Government of Bahrain was not in a position to provide evidence of links between Iran and specific events in our country this year”. Then Bassiouni gave him a copy of the report in an enormous red box, and it was all over. The king said he hoped “to make this day one that will be remembered in the history of this nation”. It is certainly one that will be remembered by the family of Abdulnabi Kadhem, who according to eyewitnesses was killed by a police vehicle a few hours before the king spoke, and a day to remember for former opposition MP Matar Matar, who was back in court for his part in peaceful protests. Despite the king’s apparent acceptance of the need for urgent reform to the criminal process, these sham trials continue. The notorious case of the 20 medics who were tortured and sentenced to prison for between five and 15 years resumes on Monday and others are scheduled for weeks and months to come. “This day turns a new page in history,” declared the king. But that night, in the village of Bani Jamrah, we heard the thud thud thud of tear gas canisters being shot around the neighbourhood. It’s so common that locals scarcely bother to look out of the window these days. The BICI report offers a bit of succor to everyone – to those critical of the crackdown and those loyal to the government. It includes sections on “Attacks on the Sunni community” and “Attacks on Expatriates,” supporting some of the government narrative that it needed to take extreme measures to “restore order” to a country on the brink of widespread intercommunal violence. But the report offers no recommendations for fundamental political reform or steps towards democracy. “We go back to where all this started, it doesn’t address why people protested in the first place,” said a Bahraini woman. “At best it takes us back to square one.”


Published on November 25, 2011


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