MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain has announced a commission to steer reforms after an inquiry found systematic rights abuse during a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests this year, but opposition parties said they would not participate.
The U.S. administration has said it will delay a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, pending the government’s response to the inquiry.
Protesters, mainly from Bahrain’s Shi‘ite majority, took to the streets in February demanding a bigger role for elected representatives and less power for ruling al-Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims. Some Shi‘ite groups sought an end to the monarchy altogether.
The protests were followed by a harsh crackdown and two months of martial law. After complaints of abuse and torture, King Hamad set up an inquiry in June to look at the events.
It reported last week that abuse was systematic and called for a commission including opposition figures to implement reforms. Among its recommendations were recruiting more Shi‘ites to the security forces, reviewing jail sentences for activists, punishing those to blame for abuse and compensating victims.
“The National Commission will study the recommendations and put forward proposals including with regards to the recommendation on necessary amendments in laws and regulations and how the recommendations can be implemented,” a statement on the official BNA news agency said late on Saturday.
“The Commission will end its work by the end of February in a framework of transparency,” it said, citing a royal decree from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
Wefaq, a Shi‘ite Islamist party and the largest opposition political bloc in Bahrain, said two of its members had been asked to join the 22-member commission, but that they had not agreed to participate because the party itself was shut out.
“We as a political party have not been approached and we were not consulted over who represents us,” senior Wefaq member Jawad Fairooz told a news conference by five opposition groups.
The commission includes the justice minister and a range of Sunni and Shi‘ite businessmen, politicians and rights figures. Only four, however, are considered members of the opposition, including the two Wefaq members and two rights activists.
Fairooz said the commission was dominated by pro-government figures and that the justice minister was responsible for mosque demolitions and criminal cases against doctors, teachers and opposition leaders, which were criticized by the inquiry.
The opposition parties said the charges of rights abuse in the report were serious enough to warrant a cabinet resignation.
Radhi al-Musawi of the Waad party said the commission outlined in the decree, with powers to study, propose and comment, fell short of the language used in the inquiry report, which talked of powers to implement reforms.
The inquiry called for legal action against “those in government who have committed unlawful or negligent acts resulting in the deaths, torture and mistreatment of civilians.”
It said security forces should include Bahrainis from all communities. Sentences linked to political expression should be reviewed, sacked workers given their jobs back, and compensation paid to families of those killed - 35 died during the unrest - and those who suffered torture and incommunicado detention.
It also called on state media to relax censorship and give access to the opposition, and for a “national reconciliation program ” to address political, social and economic grievances.
It is not clear how far the government is prepared to go in negotiations with opposition groups. A “national dialogue” was held in June, but Wefaq walked out and few reforms were agreed.
The foreign minister told Reuters on Friday that opposition parties including Wefaq should take part in the National Commission and that all issues would be on the table. But he later said on Twitter that he was not suggesting the creation of a new political dialogue.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Ruth Pitchford