MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain’s king said on Tuesday his island state had rolled out real reforms in the wake of international criticism of its crackdown on protesters last year but now needed to prove it could put them into practice.
At least 1,000 people were detained when the Sunni Muslim kingdom crushed protests led by its Shi‘ite majority demanding curbs to the power of the ruling family, an end to sectarian discrimination and democratic reforms.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said the country - a key ally by Washington in its conflict with Iran since it provides a base for the U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet - had made significant progress in reforming its security forces, judiciary, social policy and media since the unrest in February-March 2011.
“We want our people to feel and see the differences these changes have on their lives. The challenge of the coming months will be to translate these into tangible, cultural changes,” the king said at a ceremony before government officials, military officers, diplomats and foreign media.
“The doors of dialogue have and continue to be open,” he said, touching on reports of stepped-up contacts in recent weeks between the government and opposition parties on formal talks on political reforms.
Business in the banking and tourism hub has been hit by a crisis that has dragged on for over a year, allowing radicals among pro-government Sunnis and in the Shi‘ite opposition to gain ground.
Bahrain’s opposition parties say the government is window-dressing to impress Western allies who pressured it into launching an investigation into the crushing of protests last year and abuses committed during martial law.
They complain that no senior officials have been held accountable for torture of detainees, which led to five deaths, and at the sackings of public and private employees who took part in protests and destruction of mosques.
“The same people are in charge and still there, no one at a high level has been taken to court or prosecuted,” said Jawad Fairooz of the leading opposition party Wefaq at a news conference this week.
When pressed by reporters, Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa declined to say whether anyone would face action for executing those decisions. He said torture had been an institutional problem, rather than a policy.
Bahrain called in troops from Sunni Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help crack down on protesters, whom it accused of acting with an Iranian-backed Shi‘ite agenda.
Fourteen protest leaders remain in jail after military trials. The opposition says they should have been released since their crimes were political.
Bahrain tasked international lawyers led by Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni to investigate the unrest, which brought Middle East the kind of political ferment that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt to the doorstep of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain’s king on Tuesday was commenting on a report by a government commission on how well the government was rolling out recommendations made by Bassiouni’s team late last year.
“The process of implementation is continuous and it will take time until results become clear,” Ali Saleh al-Saleh, head of the appointed upper house of parliament, said in a speech to the king, outlining the commission’s progress so far.
The progress report said the kingdom had agreed to a new police code of conduct, had allowed the Red Cross to inspect detention centers and set up a body to investigate accusations that government employees killed or mistreated citizens. The government says 15 of 26 recommendations have been carried out.
Bahrain earlier this month imposed restrictions on human rights group monitoring the reforms it says it has carried out, and asked the U.N. investigator into torture to postpone a visit to the country until July.
Human Rights Minister Fatima Al-Balooshi said rights groups had been restricted to five-day visas because of staffing shortages at her ministry. “It’s an organizational issue,” she told Reuters after the ceremony.
Street protests in largely Shi‘ite areas of the country continue daily, and feature confrontations with security forces using tear gas on demonstrators.
Activists say abuses by riot police continue. There were clashes on Monday after the funeral of a 27-year-old who died after inhaling tear gas. The government says such deaths are an unfortunate consequences of anarchic violence by angry youths.
“Tear gas is not used as an offensive weapon,” said John Timoney, a former Miami police chief brought in to help with reforms, told reporters. “I’ve seen police using great restraint after tremendous provocation night after night.”
A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday that it welcomed the government’s steps to reform the security sector, but said it there were still ongoing concerns over the use of force.
“We have been receiving worrying reports of the disproportionate use of force by Bahraini security forces, including the excessive use of tear gas, the use of birdshot pellets and rubber bullets,” said the U.N. spokesman, Rupert Colville, calling on the government to investigate.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, writing by Joseph Logan and Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Andrew Roche