MANAMA Bahrain's police chief said the Gulf state was slowly returning to stability five years after a 2011 uprising was put down by force, but still faced security threats from Iran-backed elements and militants linked to Islamic State.
Speaking ahead of the fifth anniversary of the start of the pro-democracy protests, Brigadier-General Tariq al-Hassan also rejected accusations by rights groups of torture by security forces as a "broken record", saying Bahrain has set up several monitoring mechanisms to ensure police transparency.
The U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state has struggled to overcome bitter divisions that developed after a revolt in 2011 by majority Shi'ite Muslims demanding reforms and an end to the Sunni monarchy's political domination.
Critics of the island kingdom, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based, say the divisions have been deepened by a harsh crackdown on the opposition by Bahrain's security forces.
Al-Hassan dismissed that, saying that the protests had been hijacked by "extremists" directed by Shi'ite Iran.
"Bahrain has faced terrorist attacks ... acts of unrest and attacks in the past five years. Today, security is better and is under control," he told Reuters in an interview. "But this stability must be preserved because we are facing an assault from abroad, specifically from Iran as we have shown more than once."
Iran has consistently denied accusations that it foments instability in Bahrain and its fellow Gulf Arab states.
Al-Hassan said Bahrain also faced threats from Islamic State and al Qaeda militants. The brother of prominent Islamic State preacher Turki Mubarak al-Bin'ali is among 24 people on trial in Bahrain for trying to set up an Islamic State branch.
Arab Spring protests rocked Bahrain in 2011, when thousands of demonstrators camped out in downtown Manama demanding reforms before security forces, supported by Gulf Arab allies including Saudi Arabia, removed them and bulldozed a roundabout that came to symbolize the uprising.
The confrontation has caused a rift between Shi'ites and Sunnis, damaging relations between communities of various ethnic and religious backgrounds with a long tradition of tolerance.
Rights groups say Bahrain has stepped up its crackdown on dissent in the past two years, arresting opposition leaders for incitement and revoking the citizenship of more than 300 people.
International human rights groups also accuse security forces of using torture to extract confessions from prisoners, a charge vehemently denied by al-Hassan.
"Unfortunately, the issue of human rights had been misused by some organizations and by some states, and it is only just that they acknowledge what Bahrain had achieved in this field," Hassan said. "This broken record about torture in prisons, I don't know what this talk is about."
He said Bahrain had set up several watchdogs to monitor police work to ensure transparency, appointed an ombudsman to investigate complaints of abuse and was working with prison authorities in Britain and Ireland to improve prison services.
"I see that the level of transparency that exists today, unfortunately, is being ignored by those who belong to human rights bodies, or some of them," he said.
Human Rights Watch last November questioned Bahrain's claims that it had ended torture in detention. "All the available evidence supported the conclusion that these new institutions have not effectively tackled ... a 'culture of impunity' among security forces," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director.
(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Ros Russell)