The official commission studying alleged human rights abuses in Bahrain will release its findings this week, a move that anti-government activists say will likely spark more unrest in the already tense island kingdom.
Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, established a five-member commission in June to investigate “whether the events of February and March 2011 (and thereafter) involved violations of international human rights law and norms”.
At least 35 people have been killed in this year’s unrest, with hundreds more wounded and detained.
The commission’s final report, originally scheduled for release in late October, will be published on Wednesday.
Opposition leaders have already called for large demonstrations to coincide with the release. Many Bahrainis are sceptical that the report will be fair, partly because of statements made by Cherif Bassiouni, the Egyptian judge who chairs the commission.
His most controversial statement came in August, when he told reporters that there was no evidence of routine torture in Bahrain. He backtracked earlier this month, when he told the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that the commission had uncovered 300 cases of torture, and described it as a “systematic policy”.
“They don’t trust the report. This is a commission appointed by the king,” said Yousif al-Muhafdah, a human rights activist.
“The people in Bahrain are disappointed with Bassiouni and his commission.”
Bahrain’s main opposition parties – particularly Al Wefaq, the largest of them – have been reluctant to criticise the government during this year’s unrest, fearing that doing so would undercut their already limited power.
Their response to the report will likely be cautious as well. Ali al-Aswad, a former Al Wefaq parliamentary member, said he was confident that the report would include a thorough accounting of human rights abuses.
“In this area we have clear information that the report will do a good job,” he said.
But al-Aswad also said that he did not “expect anything towards political reconciliation”. The government hopes that the report will bring opposition parties back into politics. All of Al Wefaq’s 18 parliamentarians, including al-Aswad, resigned their seats in protest earlier this year.
Bahraini politics have remained sharply divided ever since, not only between the government and the opposition, but also within the ruling family. Analysts describe a power struggle between “moderates”, aligned with the crown prince, and more conservative factions linked to the longtime prime minister, who is also the king’s uncle.
A coalition of Bahraini human rights groups plans to issue an alternative set of findings at a press conference on Tuesday.
The report will be closely watched by international human rights organisations, several of which are sending analysts to Bahrain this week.
“We’ll be looking at the whole issue of impunity, proper investigations,” said Said Boumedouha, a researcher with Amnesty International. “They need to bring those responsible for torture, for the deaths of civilians in custody, to justice.”
Boumedouha said that the members of the commission are generally well-regarded, and that he expected their investigation was a serious one. “Their reputations are on the line too,” he said.
The commission’s report will also have implications for Bahrain’s relationship with the United States. The US State Department has delayed a proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain until after the report is released.
The US has been one of the largest arms suppliers to Bahrain, according to an Amnesty International report released last month. It also maintains a large naval base in the kingdom.
The uprising in Bahrain began in mid-February, when protesters demanding political reforms took over Pearl Roundabout in downtown Manama.
They were initially met with a brutal crackdown, as security forces used live ammunition to clear the square. Bahrain’s king apologised for the violence and protesters were allowed to return, though they continued to face intermittent police action.
But the opposition struggled to coalesce around a coherent set of demands. Some protesters wanted a constitutional monarchy; others said they would settle for nothing less than the complete ouster of the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty. Most of the demonstrators were Shia, angry at what they perceive as decades of discrimination by a Sunni-led government.
Protesters staged marches to a number of symbolic sites around Bahrain, including the foreign ministry and the state television building. They were finally expelled from Pearl Roundabout in mid-March, when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sent hundreds of troops, backed by armoured vehicles, to quell the movement.
Since then, authorities have bulldozed dozens of mosques in Shia neighbourhoods, and human rights groups have accused Bahraini security forces of targeting doctors and nurses who treated protesters.
The latest death came on Saturday, when a police vehicle ran over a 16-year-old protester in Juffair, a suburb of Manama. The boy’s uncle told the Associated Press news agency that security forces blocked relatives and medical personnel from reaching him.
Bahrain’s interior ministry said that the boy’s death was an accident, and blamed it on an “oil spill” left by “rioters”.