Bahrain’s Rights Report: Power Speaks Truth to Itself

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Cherif Bassiouni, second from left, head of the commission charged with investigating Bahrain's uprising which took place earlier this year presents a report to Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, second from right, in Sakhir Palace in Sakhir, Bahrain, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011. (Hasan Jamali / AP)

Can the truth heal? That’s what the people of Bahrain are about to find out as they embark on an ambitious, and unprecedented, attempt to move beyond the ravages of an aborted revolution that has sundered the social fabric of this cosmopolitan island kingdom in the Persian Gulf. Five months ago Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa commissioned an independent investigation into the events surrounding a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in February and March. He was attempting to halt the country’s downward spiral of suspicion, blame and recrimination that has resulted in a stagnating economy, a loss of national prestige, and the chance that Bahrain could once again be denied the opportunity to host the Formula One Grand Prix next year.

To prove that he was serious, King al-Khalifa selected veteran war-crimes investigator Cherif Bassiouni to lead the Bahrain Independent Commission of Investigation. And on Wednesday afternoon, in a formal ceremony attended by the royal family, government officials and the local and national press, Bassiouni presented his findings. Doubts that an investigative body commissioned and paid for by one of the parties implicated in the crimes could be truly independent quickly dissipated as Bassiouni read out a litany of graphic human-rights violations discovered over the course of the investigation. Unlawful detention, excessive and indiscriminate use of force, night raids designed to “create fear,” workplace purges of protest participants, sexual abuse, the threat of rape along with beatings and the administration of electric shocks to elicit confessions, and the destruction of religious sites that “give the impression of collective punishment.” He described widespread and “systematic torture.”

It was the most comprehensive report to date on security-force actions in any of the Arab uprisings, and was accompanied by the extraordinary scene of an Arab ruler being criticized by a foreign party in a public setting. The question now is, What happens next? “We fulfilled our task,” Bassiouni tells TIME. “Now the government’s part of the task is to follow up.” The commission recommended a series of sweeping changes that the King has promised to implement. Such reforms, if enacted well, could lead to a rare peaceful denouement of an Arab uprising. If not, the growing sectarian divide in a country poised between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia could spark a violent conflagration in a region responsible for more than half the world’s petroleum output.

Bahrain’s revolution started on Feb. 14, when pro-democracy activists gathered at a downtown roundabout to demand political reform and a constitutional monarchy. Bahrain does have an elected parliament, but its powers are weak. The royal family appoints the upper house, and the Prime Minister, uncle to the King, has been in power for 40 years. Though Bahrain is about 70% Shi’ite, gerrymandering has favored the Sunni minority, to which the royal family belongs. It is a setup that has fostered simmering discontent among the Shi’ite opposition and defensiveness among Sunnis.

In the early days of the revolution the dominant slogan was “Not Sunni, Not Shi’ite. Bahraini” — an attempt to pre-empt charges that the democracy drive was sectarian in nature. It didn’t work. Within days, the tenor of the protest changed, says Bassiouni. Fears of a Shi’ite takeover spread through the Sunni population. “There is no doubt that the government media augmented the fear and played on it. The Sunnis were saying, ‘Oh my God, they are going to take over and they are going to do to us what the Iranian revolutionists did to the Shah’s people and we will all be butchered.’” Bassiouni doesn’t have an explanation for why the government would do this, but Matar Matar, a former parliamentarian from the opposition al-Wefaq party (which resigned in protest after the government crackdown on protesters) has a good idea. “The government didn’t want to give up the power that the people were demanding, so they turned it to a sectarian issue. It was divide and conquer.”

What was propaganda at the beginning soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a country where once asking someone’s religion was considered impolite, citizens were now judged because of their faith. “We don’t deny that Bahrain has a sectarian problem,” says Matar, “but compared to other countries in the region — Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Lebanon — we have a remarkable history of tolerance. Not once during the protests did a Shia kill a Sunni civilian, or a Sunni civilian kill a Shia.” But nearly all of the victims of government crimes were Shi’ite. The one exception, Ibrahim Sharif, is a prominent Bahraini lawmaker who aligned himself with the protest movement and against the government. He is still in jail on antiregime charges that appear spurious.

While the numbers of dead — 35 during the protests, including five security officers and five demonstrators who died in detention — pale in comparison with the carnage seen in countries like Syria and Yemen, proportionally speaking the impact was extraordinary. Bahrain has only 525,000 citizens. An estimated 100,000 took to the streets in the early days of the protests, either against or in support of the government. Few went unaffected by the violence, and everyone has an opinion.  The commission based its findings on 9,000 written complaints and more than 5,000 interviews conducted over the span of five months. The bulk of the report focuses on crimes conducted by the government, but Bassiouni made it clear that some of the fault lay with the antigovernment protesters and the Shi’ite opposition who failed to take an opportunity for dialogue in the very beginning, when the Crown Prince made an offer to negotiate. “It was a political gamble,” says Bassiouni. “They felt that the momentum of the street was behind them.” Members of the al-Wefaq party argue that they didn’t think the Crown Prince could deliver on his promises, nor did they have time, they say — not long after the offer, Saudi troops came in to quash the uprising at the government’s invitation.

Many were surprised by how far-reaching the report was. “It was certainly above my expectations,” says Matar. “There were many strong and clear statements that overlapped with our own findings of human-rights abuses.” Still, he, like many of the protesters, was frustrated that the report stopped short of naming names. Bassiouni, an Egyptian American who speaks with a flat Chicago accent, says that though he holds the government generally responsible for the abuses that took place, he found little evidence of top-down directives. Instead, in the detention cases he found something more chilling: a pattern of abuse that indicates systematic training in methods that go against international humanitarian and Bahraini law. “When you see people wearing black coveralls, black balaclavas, all acting in the same way, you have to ask yourselves, Where does this come from? This is the product of training,” says Bassiouni, speaking of the security forces. Not, however, Bahraini training. Foreign. “Black balaclavas don’t come natural to places like Bahrain. My suspicion is a Western private contracting company trained them.”

Though not remotely equivalent to the levels of violence reached by government forces, the protesters do bear some blame, according to the report. Widespread rumors that Shi’ite doctors refused to treat Sunnis were roundly denounced in the report, but there was clear evidence of provocation and aggressive acts against the security forces. “Nobody can say that the demonstrators are angels and didn’t make any mistakes,” says Matar. Such an acknowledgment is a positive step toward eventual reconciliation. If the government and its supporters can make similar moves, it may turn out that the King’s gamble on transparency will pay dividends. “Truth can be healing if you want to be healed,” says Bassiouni. “Truth by itself is only an ingredient; it has to lead to justice, and justice is what brings closure to people. So the question is, Do the Shia want to be healed? Do the Sunnis want to be healed? Or will they keep the wound open and say, ‘I am wounded, I want more’?”