Bahrain commission to investigate army, torture claims

MANAMA Sun Jul 24, 2011 4:06pm EDT

MANAMA (Reuters) - A commission tasked by Bahrain to investigate weeks of protests that rocked the Gulf island kingdom said Sunday it would look at the role of the security forces in the unrest and examine charges of torture.

At a news conference marking the launch of the five-member panel's investigation, chairman Cherif Bassiouni said his team would look at 30 police officers being investigated by the Interior Ministry for allegedly not following procedures.

He said the army would also be investigated.

"We will investigate the role of the army. The army is not above the law and not beyond the law," Bassiouni said, adding most of the incidents under investigation happened while the military was in charge.

Bahrain's Sunni rulers imposed martial law and crushed weeks of pro-democracy protests led mostly by the Shi'ite majority in March, lifting the state of emergency some four months later.

During the crackdown, hundreds of people were arrested, most of them Shi'ites, and some 2,000 who were sacked.

Tensions are still simmering in the Gulf Arab state, with small protests erupting daily in Shi'ite villages ringing the capital since emergency law ended on June 1.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa set up the panel of human rights and legal experts in June after facing international criticism for the crackdown, including from long-time ally the United States, whose strategic Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.

Panel chief Bassiouni is an Egyptian-American law professor and U.N. war crimes expert who was involved in the formation of the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) and recently headed a U.N. inquiry into events in Libya.

The commission also includes Canadian judge and former ICC president Philippe Kirsch, British human rights lawyer Nigel Rodley, Iranian lawyer Mahnoush Arsanjani and Kuwaiti Islamic law expert Badria al-Awadhi.

TORTURE CLAIMS

Bahrain has said it will give the commission access to official files and allow it to meet witnesses in secret. But opposition groups have argued bias may mar a mission set up by the government.

Bassiouni said the panel was investigating the 33 deaths recorded during the protests and crackdown, as well as 400 cases of injuries. He also said the commission would investigate claims of torture in detention, including of several medical workers.

"(The mandate) also includes a number of allegations of torture including that of the offences which occurred against medical personnel, which are well documented by international human rights groups," Bassiouni told reporters.

Bahrain denies any systematic abuse by police and has said all charges of torture will be investigated.

The government has accused protesters of a sectarian agenda backed by Shi'ite power Iran, just across Gulf waters.

Despite the opposition's denials, such suspicions linger among the Sunni population and highlight sectarian tensions that continue to divide the kingdom.

Bassiouni told reporters the panel would hand over its report to the king in October but said the real task would be to act on the commission's recommendations.

"The risk is that there are too many high expectations of what we may be able to accomplish," he said. "It becomes a matter of internal significance to act on the recommendations ... this crisis had a traumatic effect on the people of Bahrain."

(Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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