Bahraini security forces used “excessive force” and tortured detainees during its crackdown in March on Shia Muslim-led protests demanding democratic change, an Independent Commission of Inquiry has declared.
The mass demonstrations which rocked the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab kingdom were violently crushed as government forces used live ammunition and heavy-handed tactics to scatter protesters.
The report, released in Manama on Wednesday, said the commission did not find proof of an Iran link to the unrest.
“Evidence presented to the commission did not prove a clear link between the events in Bahrain and Iran,” Cherif Bassiouni, the commission’s lead investigator, said.
Responding to the inquiry’s findings on Wednesday, an official spokesman said the Bahrain government accepted the criticisms.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, speaking after Bassiouni delivered his report, pledged that officials involved in the abuses would be held accountable and replaced.
“The government welcomes the findings of the Independent Commission, and acknowledges its criticisms,” an official Bahraini statement said. “We took the initiative in asking for this thorough and detailed inquiry to seek the truth and we accept it.”
The report blamed the opposition for not having accepted the Bahraini crown prince’s initiative in March which it says might have led to a peaceful solution. It also mentioned instances of aggression against the Sunnis of Bahrain as well as foreign workers.
Bassiouni said the death toll from the month-long unrest reached 35, including five security personnel. Hundreds more were injured. The findings, which studied events in February and March, said that 11 other people were killed later.
The commission concluded that a total of 2,929 people were detained during the protest movement, at least 700 remain in prison.
International organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN human rights agency, have repeatedly accused the government of violating citizens’ rights, citing allegations of torture, unfair trials, excessive use of force and violent repression.
Investigations conducted by the panel revealed that security forces “used excessive force” while “many detainees were tortured”, Bassiouni said.
Unrest rocked Bahrain between February 14 to March 18
In March, Bahraini security forces boosted by some 1,000 Gulf troops crushed the uprising in Manama’s Pearl Square, the epicentre of the anti-government movement.
Bassiouni said the commission found no evidence that Gulf troops violated human rights.
“The commission did not find any proof of human rights violations caused by the presence of the Peninsula Shield forces,” he said.
Iran and fellow Shias across the Arab world had criticised the Bahraini government for calling in forces from fellow Sunni monarchies, claiming that the Saudi-led force was used against Shia Bahrainis.
The report’s findings were released hours after clashes in at least two predominantly Shia villages on the outskirts of Manama.
In A’ali, about 30km south of the Manama, clashed took place after officers allegedly ran a driver off the road.
Al Jazeera’s Gregg Carlstrom, reporting from A’ali, said police had used tear gas and sound bombs against the protesters.
“Protests initially began after police allegedly forced a man off the road, causing him to crash into a house and die,” he said. He said police also raided a makeshift clinic and arrested a number of people.
In his remarks, Hamad blamed much of the unrest on efforts by Iran to incite violence, but said laws would be reviewed and if necessary revised.
“We do not want, ever again, to see our country paralysed by intimidation and sabotage … nor do we want, ever again, to discover that any of our law enforcement personnel have mistreated anyone,” he said.
“Therefore, we must reform our laws so that they are consistent with international standards to which Bahrain is committed by treaties.”
Hamad established the 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 violence, with hundreds more wounded and detained.
Journalists have recently been welcomed back into the country after months of restrictions, and the government announced on Monday that all forms of torture would be illegal, with more stringent penalties for those who commit them.
Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a leading opposition group, praised the government’s move to ban torture, but argued that the Bassiouni report would limit itself to a handful of low-level targets.
Bahrain’s government had already admitted using excessive force against protesters before the release of the independent commission’s report.