By William Fisher
The head of a fact-finding commission set up by the Bahraini Royal Family to investigate reports of the maltreatment of anti-regime detainees says the government has used a “systematic policy of torture against protesters.”
Though full report of the commission is not due until November 23, Chairman Cherif Bassiouni said last week that he has found 300 cases of torture during his investigation.
"It is not possible to justify torture in any way, and despite the small number of cases, it is clear there was a systematic policy," Bassiouni said in an interview with Egyptian daily newspaper.
"I investigated and I found 300 cases of torture and I was helped in that by legal experts from Egypt and America," he added.
Bassiouni had earlier said that he did not believe maltreatment was systematic, comments that provoked an angry reaction from anti-government protesters.
Since the beginning of anti-regime protests in Bahrain in mid-February, hundreds of people have been arrested and thousands have lost their jobs for supporting the anti-government movement. Bahraini protesters demand an end to the rule of the Al Khalifa dynasty.
Many of those released from jails in Bahrain have accused the Manama regime of serious abuses. Some also charge that a member of Bahrain's royal family named Sheikha Noora bint Ibrahim Al-e Khalifa beat prisoners with sticks and rubber hoses and gave them electric shocks.
Several prisoners have died under torture and rights groups have raised concerns about the torture and abuse of detainees in Bahrain.
An earlier web version of this story by writer Kelly McEvers said, "In an interview, (Bassioni) seemed underwhelmed by the scale of Bahrain's crackdown, compared with the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, for example." A more accurate characterization is "In an interview, he said the scale of Bahrain's crackdown was 'manageable,' compared with the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.”
Cherif Bassiouni, a high-profile Egyptian-born judge, was appointed in late July to lead an inquiry into events surrounding the protests in February and March, and the crackdown that ensued. He was mandated to investigate what went on during mass protests in February and March, and the brutal crackdown on the largely Shiite opposition that ensued. More than 30 people died, hundreds were detained and beaten, and thousands were fired from their jobs.
Bassiouni has investigated war crimes and human rights violations in the Balkans, Rwanda, Afghanistan and, most recently, Libya. He and a team of international investigators have taken testimony from both the government and the opposition. The commission will then issue a report and recommendations to Bahrain's king.
Bassiouni says unlike the 9/11 Commission, which was made up of former
politicians, or a U.N. commission that investigates a country whether the ruler likes it or not, the Bahrain commission is different.
Bassioni said during his interview, "This is a first of its kind in the world," he says. "That is, for a government to appoint a commission of inquiry but to select the composition of the committee from international personalities and to give it total independence."
Nevertheless, skeptics are pointing out that Commission is being financed ny the government of Bahrain, that a former government employee is arranging his media availabilities.
But Bassiouni says,” if members of Bahrain's security forces are found to have committed torture, he will recommend they be prosecuted. What he says he can't control is whether these recommendations are heeded or whether those who ordered the torture will ever be known.”
He says he hopes the commission will at least serve as a public record — a kind of South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission on paper — that might one day help the disenfranchised Shiite majority of Bahrain reconcile with the country's Sunni leadership.
At a press conference in Bahrain's capital, Manama, Khalil al-Marzooq, a leader of the country's main Shiite opposition group, said by focusing on individual cases of abuse, Bassiouni's commission won't get at the larger problems.
"It means more than somebody fired you. It means more than a policeman beat you in the street. It's more than a policeman tortured you in custody," he says.
"It's a structural issue.
A structural issue, Marzooq says, that can be fixed only by reforming the
political system, not by inviting international legal scholars to clean up