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Bahrain commission issues brutal critique of Arab Spring crackdown

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Last-ditch effort?

The report was seen as a last-ditch attempt to bring Bahrain’s increasingly polarized sides together. Past concessions from the regime and attempts at dialogue have all fallen flat – in large part because the crackdown has continued.

To this end, the commission’s findings included recommendations for establishing an independent body to implement reforms, training for security forces in upholding international human rights standards, compensation for victims, and the separation of the judiciary from the interior ministry.

Responding to these suggestions, the king promised to “waste no time in benefiting from [the commission’s] work.... your report provides a historical opportunity for Bahrain to deal with issues that are both serious and urgent.”

Activists skeptical

Yet opposition activists remained skeptical that promises would come to fruition given that past promises remain unfulfilled, says Said Yousif, a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

“The king promised back in February to make an investigation and all that, but it seems to be that there was no change,” says Mr. Yousif. “We hope that this time Bassiouni’s recommendations will be implemented.... Our [past] experience is different, but let’s be optimistic.”

Indeed, while the report was released to great fanfare at the king’s Safriya Palace, on the streets of Manama, the mood was tense. By mid-morning, several small protests had erupted and security forces responded with tear gas.

Human rights activists say that the continued suppression of protests is just one example of how the same violations the commission is intended to report on continue unabated. “There are still violations ongoing,” said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “This shows that [the government] doesn’t yet have the political willingness to change things."

Political opposition cautiously optimistic

The main political opposition, Al-Wefaq, expressed cautious hope. Jassim Hussain, a former Wefaq member of parliament who resigned after the violent crackdown, says that his party was still interested in negotiating with the government to find a way out of the current political deadlock.

“I think [we have] made it very clear that dialogue is the only way forward,” he says. “But for now, the ball is in the government’s court.”

The opposition’s demands are relatively modest: Hussein says that Wefaq would like to see a more representative and responsive government, for example with a stronger parliament. Wefaq is also demanding an independent judiciary and a halt to what they see as the gerrymandering of voting districts.

Some analysts worry, however, that Bahrain has become too polarized for dialogue to even be an option. “It’s not just regime and the protesters anymore,” says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “Within those camps, you have the hard-liners and the doves.” The intervening months of violence and mistrust, he argues, have empowered the hard-liners on both sides.

Within the regime, Hiltermann says that those who favor a harsh crackdown are “solidly on the saddle.” And on the streets, he says, “A lot of people are not going to support Wefaq because they don’t believe that they represent them. If Wefaq tries to represent ‘the opposition,’ they might well face street protests against them. They have to be very, very careful.”

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