Analysis: Bahrain digests inquiry as protests continue

DUBAI Fri Nov 25, 2011 3:30pm EST

Anti-government protesters hold banners as they march during a rally organised by all opposition societies of Bahrain in Budaiya, west of Manama November 25, 2011.  REUTERS/ Hamad I Mohammed

Anti-government protesters hold banners as they march during a rally organised by all opposition societies of Bahrain in Budaiya, west of Manama November 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/ Hamad I Mohammed

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DUBAI (Reuters) - A report that slammed Bahrain for using systematic torture to crush pro-democracy protests has put pressure on the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state to take some steps toward political reform but the opposition doubt anything substantive is in the works.

The hardhitting findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by international rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, vindicated majority Shi'ites and opposition groups over claims of repression during martial law brought in after the government broke the protests up.

The government will have to be seen to implement its recommendations if it wants the U.S. Congress to approve a major arms sale, but it is not clear if hardliners in the ruling family opposed to empowering Shi'ites have the upper hand.

The Sunni-dominated government says it has formed a working group to study the report, which calls for an examination of Shi'ite political, economic and social grievances, but opposition parties say no one has contacted them yet.

"I fear that the government team formed will try to bury the issue. As Bassiouni said, there is a crisis of confidence between the government and opposition," said Radhi Musawi, deputy secretary-general of the secular Waad party.

"What Bassiouni wrote about is only about 50 percent of what happened. There were acts of rape that he didn't detail directly," he said, adding policing remained heavy-handed.

Shi'ites complain of discrimination in jobs, housing, education and government departments, including police and army. They say electoral districts are gerrymandered.

The government has said it is addressing those concerns but the opposition says it has heard such promises for years now and there should be international monitoring of the government's response to the Bassiouni report.

After martial law was lifted, the king initiated a national dialogue in July that recommended giving parliament more powers to monitor and question ministers, but it did not alter the fundamental balance of power. The elected chamber does not have full legislative powers, nor does it form governments.

Foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said in an interview Friday that reforms would be looked at again.

He told Reuters a national commission would invite opposition, including the main Shi'ite group Wefaq, to look at "all important issues," both political and security.

ROYALS HEAR OF TORTURE

Senior figures of the ruling al-Khalifa family, including army and security officials listened to an unexpectedly harsh summary of how their agencies had repressed the protest movement this year at a lavish ceremony aired live on state television.

King Hamad, Crown Prince Salman and Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman sat mostly motionless on a podium as Bassiouni recounted the abuses their citizens had suffered to extract confessions and as punishment for protesting against the family.

The report made for harrowing reading: the foreign minister told Reuters he had read it and was "shocked."

Details from the testimonies from unidentified detainees who the BICI team were given access to included sexual abuse, lost eyes, threat of attacks by dogs, the abuse of wounded hospital patients, electrocution, beatings with hoses and other objects, leaving many with permanent disabilities.

Opposition groups and street protesters who clash with riot police almost daily in Shi'ite villages have been emboldened. Thousands marched in a funeral procession Thursday taunting police with chanted snippets from Bassiouni's report.

"There is ongoing violence, there are ongoing abuses, there is a complete lack of faith that the government will even read the report," Alaa Shehabi, daughter of a prominent dissident based in London who opposes al-Khalifa rule, said at the march.

State media and opposition groups have focused on the parts of the BICI report that put their opponents in a bad light.

Government papers lauded Bassiouni comments this week to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya saying there was "no cause for revolution" in Bahrain, but the independent al-Wasat daily cited Bassiouni saying the interior minister and state security agency were responsible for "shortcomings" in investigating torture.

Bassiouni said Wefaq had passed up a genuine opportunity for reform from the crown prince during the protests, in the hope of making gains through street action rather than dialogue. He also said the last instance of mistreatment heard by the inquiry was on June 10, when martial law was over.

HARDLINERS ON BOTH SIDES

Many on the Shi'ite street say they do not want the monarchy at all, although that does not necessarily mean that in future elections they would not continue to give their vote to Wefaq.

If there is any U.S. pressure for some democratic reforms, they could be trumped by Saudi demands that Bahrain not empower Shi'ites, which would embolden its own Shi'ite minority in the nearby Eastern Province. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Many Sunni Bahrainis look to the al-Khalifa as a safety valve against majority Shi'ites and there is pressure on the authorities not to back down. The Bassiouni report acknowledged cases of Shi'ites attacking Sunnis during the uprising.

"I'm optimistic, there is another neutral committee that will be formed by national figures to investigate national reconciliation," said Samira Rajab, a prominent government loyalist who sits in the appointed upper house of parliament.

"The important thing is for there to be good intentions from the opposition and a will to solve the problems. There are demands that can be discussed within a timeframe."

But Michael Stephens, a Royal United Services Institute researcher in Qatar, said there was a good chance the ruling family would ride out the storm and avoid critical changes.

"I don't see how the king can implement more reforms. It would be too damaging to his powerbase and challenge the fundamental underpinnings of how they run the country," he said.

(Additional reporting by Warda al-Jawahiry; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sophie Hares)

(In fourth to last paragraph, changes to say appointed assembly)

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