Manama, Bahrain – The Bahraini government hopes this week will be a chance to turn the page on months of popular protests.
In a sign of how deeply divided the country remains, police clashed with protesters during a funeral march on Tuesday afternoon, just hours before an official commission was set to release its report into alleged human rights abuses committed during months of protests.
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 violence, with hundreds more wounded and detained. The commission’s final report, originally scheduled for release in late October, was scheduled to be published on Wednesday.
The government is hoping to capitalise on the report to improve its image. 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, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, praised the government’s move to ban torture, but argued that the report would limit itself to a handful of low-level targets.
A ‘systematic policy’
A coalition of Bahraini human rights activists released their own investigation on Tuesday that cited more than 1,300 instances of torture, far more than the 300 reportedly identified by the official report.
“This was a systematic policy,” the activist said. “Why do we say ‘systematic’? Because it was the same patterns, the same tools, the same police stations.”
Opposition leaders have called for protests to coincide with the report’s release on Wednesday. Many have said the report will not lead to political reconciliation unless it faults senior officials the government follows it with a major concession, such as a general amnesty.
On Tuesday, hundreds of police roamed through Sitra, a predominantly Shia village south of the capital. They used tear gas against protesters, some of whom built makeshift roadblocks and threw rocks and petrol bombs at the police.
The demonstrators were mourning the death of Ali al-Badah, a 16-year-old who was run over by police vehicles on Saturday in Juffair, a suburb of Manama. The boy’s uncle told the Associated Press 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”.
Critics say many Bahrainis do not trust the official report because of statements made by Cherif Bassiouni, the Egyptian judge who chairs the commission.
Bassiouni said in August there was no evidence of routine torture in Bahrain. He backtracked on these comments earlier this month, telling the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that it was, in fact, 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, have been more reluctant to criticise the government during this year’s protests. Observers believe response to Wednesday’s 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,” said Aswad, who added that he still does 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.
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. “Their reputations are on the line, too,” he said.
The US state department has delayed a proposed $53m 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 state department declined to comment on the report before it was released.
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.
The opposition struggled to unify around a coherent set of demands; some protesters wanted a constitutional monarchy while others pushed for 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.