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Bahrain commission issues brutal critique of Arab Spring crackdown

An independent commission presented its findings to Bahrain's king, offering the tiny Gulf country a road map for moving beyond the violence of recent months and repairing relations with the US.

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A car drives around burning tires on a street in Budaiya, west of Manama, set by antigovernment protesters minutes after the Bahrain Independent Commission For Investigation's report aired on local television, Wednesday. Bahrain's security forces used excessive force to suppress protests in the island kingdom earlier this year, including torture and forced confessions, an inquiry panel charged with investigating abuses said on Wednesday.

Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

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An independent commission in Bahrain today documented abuses by the country's security forces during Arab Spring uprisings and offered a set of recommendations that could help the oil-rich kingdom restore its image with Western allies.

Before an audience that included the king, dignitaries, activists, and foreign media, the head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) – respected Egyptian lawyer M. Cherif Bassiouni – also decried a culture of impunity among the country’s leaders. Mr. Bassiouni called for another independent body to ensure that changes are made to prevent a repeat of the violence.

How the report is implemented will affect not just the 1.2 million inhabitants of this tiny Gulf peninsula, but the country’s geopolitical future as well. The United States, which houses its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, suspended a $53 million arms sale pending the report's findings. Acting on the recommendations may be Bahrain’s last hope to put the violence behind it.

“In every crisis, there do come forks in the road,” says Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Institution in Doha. “On one path you get to an intensification, and then the other path does offer an opportunity for compromise and to make progress. This report does offer that [opportunity] because we all know that we needed something that would help a new political agreement, and that is first and foremost what is needed.

“If [these] recommendations are taken seriously, then you may well find that you’re able to turn the corner.”

Systemic abuses

The BICI, established June 29 with a budget of $1.3 million, was part of the government’s response to protests that rocked Bahrain since majority Shiite protesters first took to the streets to demand a more representative government in February.

Drawing on 9,000 testimonies, the 500-page report offers an extensive chronology of events, documenting 46 deaths, 559 allegations of torture, and more than 4,000 cases of employees in both the public and private sector being dismissed for participating in protests. It also criticized the security forces for many instances when “force and firearms were used in an excessive manner that was, on many occasions, unnecessary, disproportionate, and indiscriminate.”

For example, hooded men systematically broke into suspects’ houses between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., "terrorizing" the inhabitants, the report says.

Torture is also documented explicitly. Cases of electrocution, stress positions, hanging, beating detainees of the soles of their feet, and verbal abuse were among the violations cited.

Notably, it found that certain abuses, such as destruction of property, "could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure" – an indication that abuses were systemic.

Bassiouni blamed the Sunni government's crackdown – which has included such tactics as night raids and the dismantling of religious structures – for exacerbating sectarian tensions in the Shiite-majority country. The report also discredited the government's arguments that the unrest had been stirred by Shiite Iran.

Speaking immediately after Bassiouni, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa promised to examine the report and use it as a template for reform: “... we are determined, God willing, to insure that the painful events are not to be repeated, but that we learn from them and use our new insights as a catalyst for positive change,” he told the audience. He vowed to set up a committee to examine the report and propose recommendations “urgently."

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