Bahrain delays UN investigator visit

Government requests torture investigator to delay visit, while strengthening restrictions on visits by rights groups.

Bahrain protests
Anti-government protests continue to be held almost every day in Bahrain [Reuters]

The Bahraini government has imposed restrictions on groups attempting to monitor reforms and has asked a United Nations investigator to delay a visit to investigate allegations of torture, the UN and rights groups say.

The UN human rights office in Geneva said on Thursday that Bahrain had formally requested that the visit of the special rapporteur on torture be delayed until July.

Juan Mendez, the investigator, had initially been scheduled to visit the Gulf island country from March 8 to 17.

Mendez would express his regrets to Bahraini representatives in meetings next week over the “last minute postponement”, said Xabier Celaya, a spokesman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

He would also “seek to secure new dates as he remains very committed to undertaking this important visit”, Celaya added.

Bahrain says that it is still undergoing major reforms following an uprising that began last year calling for greater rights and freedoms for citizens.

Celaya said that the Bahraini government wants those measures to be in place before Mendez’s visit, “so he can assess the progress that Bahrain has made to date”.

Bahrain, an ally of the United States and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family, and has been under pressure to institute political and rights reforms since its violent crackdown on the uprising.

Fatima al-Balooshi, Bahrain’s minister for social development, told the UN Human Rights Council this week the kingdom had drawn lessons from the upheaval.

“Mistakes were made. Serious wrongs were committed,” she told the Geneva forum. “We believe we are on the right track.”

In January, Bahrain told a number of human rights organisation that they should delay trips to the country until after February 22, the date the government had set for a review of the changes in the way the police, judiciary, education, media and other departments are run.

The reforms include the payment of compensation to torture victims and a process of national reconciliation, as recommended by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, a body of international legal experts, in November.

On Thursday, the government said that it needed up to 20 more days to complete its plans for implementing the BICI’s recommendations, as detailed in its damning report last year.

The BICI said protesters, who come mainly from the majority Shia population, had suffered from systematic torture to force confessions that were then used in military trials.

Unrest continues in Bahrain, and clashes between youths and riot police are reported from Shia neighbourhoods daily.

Visa restrictions strengthened

As the violence continues, three international rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, have said Bahrain’s Human Rights and Social Development Ministry informed them this week of new rules limiting them to five-day trips which must be arranged via a Bahraini sponsor.

“Regrettably we have cancelled the fact-finding visit to Bahrain … as the new five day limit imposed by the Bahraini authorities for visits by international human rights organisations is a serious impediment,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, a regional Amnesty deputy director, said in a statement. 

“The Bahraini authorities have repeatedly stated their commitment to undertake human rights reform and to cooperate with human rights organisations. These new restrictions contradict such commitment,” she said. 

The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Tourist visa restrictions, meanwhile, have also been strengthened, after Western activists took part in anti-government demonstrations last month that marked the first anniversary of the uprising on February 14.

Police allowed the main parties, led by the al-Wefaq group, to hold a rally inside the capital this week.

On Thursday, Wefaq said protests in “many villages were repressed brutally by security forces”, leaving at least two people seriously injured. In a statement, it said one of the injured had been hit in the head by a tear gas canister, while another had sustained injuries from shotgun pellets.

Youths and independent activists stage regular protests in Shia districts, which are usually put down by riot police using armoured vehicles, teargas, stun grenades and birdshot.

The interior ministry describes the youth protests as rioters who are causing chaos without a political aim.

Opposition parties and activists say heavy policing aimed at unauthorised protests in villages has taken the death toll from 35 in June to more than 60, many from the effects of tear gas. The government disputes the causes of death.

Opposition parties want a move to full-scale parliamentary democracy where the elected chamber has full legislative powers and can form cabinets. The government has given parliament more powers of scrutiny over budgets and ministers.

Source: News Agencies