Bahrain Criticized for Slow Reform Pace

Reform in Bahrain has been too slow in the year since an independent commission slammed the security forces for their handling of widespread protests by the majority Shia, human rights groups charged on Wednesday.

Bahrain Criticized for Slow Reform Pace
Altrendo Travels | Atrendo | Getty Images

Amnesty International said the western ally had "shelved" the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report as it entrenched "spiraling repression," culminating in recent bans on demonstrations and stripping 31 opposition activists of their nationality.

"The scale and nature of the violations unleashed in Bahrain since the BICI made its recommendations are making a mockery of the reform process in the country," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's deputy regional director.

Protests have continued over the past year and on Wednesday, a Bahraini court sentenced 23 medics for taking part in "illegal protests."

But the minority Sunni-led government defended its reform record, saying significant progress had been made in the past year, including the reinstatement of 98 per cent of workers who were sacked for taking part in protests.

"But (Bahrain) will not compromise our national security in order to appease any group over the interests of our diverse population," the government said, in a statement that described the Amnesty report as grossly inaccurate.

The BICI report, released a year ago, slammed the security forces for excessive use of force and systematic use of torture in the unrest. The government pledged to introduce reforms based on recommendations made by its lead author, Cherif Bassiouni.

Bahrain on Wednesday released its own follow-up report on its response to the BICI recommendations, saying it had investigated 92 deaths attributed to the unrest since February 2011, when youths took to the streets before a crackdown was launched with Saudi backing in March 2011.

The report said 12 of the 92 deaths had led to court referrals, 31 are still being investigated and 45 have been dropped owing to a lack evidence. Four more cases were dropped, according to the report, because they were a result of self-defense or "no justification" could be made for criminal charges.

The government also said that of the 19 civilian deaths the BICI blamed on the security forces, eight have led to court trials. It added that after considering 122 torture complaints, nine cases involving 11 policemen, including one Lieutenant Colonel, have been referred to the courts.

But human rights groups contrasted the judicial system's prompt action against protesters with a hesitant approach towards bringing the security forces to account.

"To date, no senior Bahraini government official has been held accountable for the violations last year," said Brian Dooley of Human Rights First.

Amnesty said Bahrain's allies, including the US and the UK, can no longer "hide behind BICI and pretend it's business as normal".

US officials, speaking on the anniversary of the BICI report, said: "We remain concerned about increasing violence in Bahrain, by limits on free expression and assembly, and a political environment that has made reconciliation and political dialogue more difficult."

They said Bahrain deserves credit for allowing external scrutiny of its rights record, but one official added that when it came to the hardest issues, "the government has not followed through – there are still people who are being held in prison or being prosecuted for demonstrating a year and a half ago, for expressing their political views".

Western officials have been calling for a real political dialogue between the government and opposition, but numerous attempts have failed.

Rising protester violence, such as the use of Molotov cocktails, was sparking a police response that has been "at times excessive" the US official said, further undermining the environment for any political resolution.