Wednesday, July 06, 2011

BAHRAIN: King Tries to Placate Anti-Government Demonstrators

By William Fisher

A day after Bahrain’s King Hamed announced the creation of an independent commission to investigate allegations that protesters' rights were violated during the anti-government demonstrations that erupted in February, riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse thousands of opposition supporters gathered near the square that was the epicenter of the nation's Shiite-led demonstrations earlier this year.

The White House is backing the “peace commission” and has urged the monarchy to meet some of the opposition's demands. But the king's appeal for dialogue got a cool reception from opposition groups. The leaders of the biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, have not yet decided whether they will join the talks.

At the same time, Bahrain's rights groups reported that another protester died on Thursday as a result of injuries he sustained during the unrest. Human Rights Activist Nabeel Rajab said the protesters at Manama's Pearl Square chanted: "Down, down Hamad." They also demanded the release of all demonstrators, opposition leaders and activists detained during the deadly crackdown on the Shiite-led campaign for political freedom and greater rights.

In an apparent concession to demonstrators’ demands, the trials of 47 doctors, nurses and other health professionals have been moved from military to civilian courts. The medical staff are charged with participating in an effort to topple Bahrain's monarchy by treating Bahrainis injured in the demonstrations and to prevent them from testifying as to what they saw.

In his speech Wednesday, the king said Bahrain is committed to reform and respecting human rights. In another move to draw the reluctant opposition into the talks, authorities on Thursday halted bringing anti-government protesters to trial at a special tribunal with military prosecutors and transferred the cases to civilian courts, a lawyer said. The practice has been criticized as unfair by rights activists and the Persian Gulf kingdom's Western allies.

The special tribunal was set up in March, when Bahrain's Sunni rulers imposed martial law to help quash protests by Shiites demanding political freedoms and greater rights. The trials of dozens of opposition figures, human rights activists and Shiite professionals continued even after the emergency laws were lifted earlier this human rights.

But the government accused the protesters of pushing the country into a "state of chaos" with the street marches and sit-ins during the turmoil.The king said the government would not interfere in the commission's probe into what he called the "unfortunate events" of February and March. The commission is to report its findings by Oct. 30.

The opposition condemned the announcement and demanded the investigation of the killing, torture, detention, inhuman treatment of the Saudi-backed Bahraini forces on Shiite Muslims of Bahrain from February to June 30th, rather than the government intention to probe only February and March incidents.

The leaders of the biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, have not yet decided whether they will join the talks.

The Financial Times quotes officials as saying the five-member commission will be headed by high-profile legal professor Cherif Bassiouni, a US-based UN war crimes expert nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in international criminal justice.

The other members are Nigel Rodley, a British lawyer and professor and member of the UN Human Rights Committee; Philippe Kirsch, a Canadian lawyer who was a judge on the International Criminal Court; Mahnoush Arsanjani, who has worked as a senior UN legal officer; and Badria al-Awadhi, a Kuwaiti lawyer.

The commission’s public report, which can include recommendations for prosecutions, will be submitted to the king by October 30. The monarch said the commission had set its own parameters and would operate independently.

The official Bahraini news agency said the Commission’s mandate is “to engage in fact finding and it has access to all concerned government agencies, government officials, government files and records. It is also free to meet with any person it deems appropriate, including but not limited to, representatives of civil society, human rights organizations, political groups, labor unions, and alleged victims and witnesses of alleged violations of internationally protected human rights.”

In connection with its work, “the Commission will be able to meet with alleged victims and witnesses of alleged violations in secrecy and in accordance with measures that it shall develop to protect the privacy and security of individuals it meets with, in line with international human rights norms.”

The Royal Decree said “the government shall not interfere in any way with the work of the Commission nor shall it prevent access to it by anyone seeking to make contact with the Commission or its staff. Moreover the government shall facilitate the Commission’s and its staff’s access to such places and people as the Commission deems appropriate.”

In his decree establishing the Commission, the king said, “The events which took place in February and March were distressing to us, as they were to all our people and to all friends of Bahrain everywhere. The events were unprecedented in our history, and came at a time when the Kingdom was taking broad strides forward in all areas. For ten years, we have sought reform of the institutions of Bahrain. We have a Constitution which is compliant with all international treaties on human rights to which Bahrain is a party. Our economic progress has also been remarkable, and we can be proud of an unemployment rate which has remained below 4%.”

He continued: “There can be no doubt that citizens have the right to express their views through peaceful and legitimate means. Citizens have the right to put their demands without being met violently; and in return, freedom must be exercised responsibly. Freedom of expression must not be exploited as a way to disturb public order, threaten civil peace, undermine economic interests or damage state facilities. During recent events, rumors were circulated to claim that some were right and others wrong. Given this situation, we cannot continue in our progress without healing these wounds and uncovering the whole truth.”

The majority Shiite population of Bahrain claims it has been routinely discriminated against, citing inability to obtain senior jobs in government or industry and “redline” housing that excludes them from the most desirable housing.

The tiny Persian Gulf kingdom is of strategic importance to the US, being home to the US fifth Fleet. That is one reason the US has been urging reconciliation. There are others, including Bahrain’s friendship with Saudi Arabia, whose troops are currently assisting the Bahrainis in putting down the unrest. Bahrain is also a producer of oil.