Bahrain panel denies reports it found no crimes against humanity

A fact-finding commission established by Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa denies reports that it has already determined that no crimes against humanity had been committed in Bahrain since the uprising in February and subsequent government crackdown.

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A fact-finding body investigating human-rights abuses in Bahrain has closed its Manama offices after scuffles broke out when hundreds of people descended on the group's premises on Monday.

Crowds turned up at Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry following media reports that the head of the panel had already determined that no crimes against humanity had been committed in Bahrain since the uprising in February and subsequent government crackdown.

The commission, a panel of international legal experts established in June by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, yesterday denied the claims, saying Cherif Bassiouni's comments had been "misrepresented" and that no conclusion could be reached until the end of the investigation.

"Despite misleading headlines in recent news articles claiming that the commission has determined that the government of Bahrain committed no crimes against humanity during the demonstrations that have occurred over the last several months, the Commission would like to clarify that it has not made any such determination," the inquiry said in a statement. People with complaints have to register for appointments with the commission's investigators. On Monday, however, hundreds swarmed the commission's building, with the commission claiming some staff were "verbally and physically threatened".

While the commission's offices have been closed until further notice, a spokesperson stressed yesterday that the work of interviewing victims and witnesses and collecting evidence on allegations is continuing.

The commission yesterday reiterated its appeal for people who have information on human-rights abuses to submit complaints.

In a recent interview with The National, Mr Bassiouni said one of the aims of the investigation was to establish whether human-rights violations carried out since February were systemic and part of a government policy or simply crimes committed by individuals. He said it was premature to determine where the investigation was leading.

Among those who converged on the commission's headquarters were workers who said they were arbitrarily fired for links to the pro-democracy movement. Mr Bassiouni previously said early estimates placed the number of workers fired since the beginning of the protests at 3,000.

The commission yesterday also denied reports that some of its staff had resigned. Some activists have in recent days questioned whether the inquiry has sufficient staff.

More than 2,000 people have been interviewed by the commission, according to the inquiry, with investigators gathering information from prisoners, injured people in hospitals, government officials and opposition groups.

The commission's spokesperson said the number of investigators has actually increased since the probe was launched on July 24.

The commission has not released the total number of investigators or their identities, but has confirmed they are all of Arab origin with backgrounds in legal or human rights.

Some members of the opposition have expressed concerns about the independence of an inquiry set up and paid for by King Hamad.

"The king established this commission, so this creates some doubts about its independence," Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview. "But, people like us try to overlook this. We want to grab any hope to take us out of this crisis."

The violent events that unfolded in February and March were detailed in a documentary Shouting in the Dark broadcast this month on Al Jazeera English, which is owned by the Qatari government. Bahraini authorities criticised the programme for presenting a one-sided account of the protests. Al Anstey, the head of Al Jazeera English, said in an interview with a Qatari newspaper last week that the Bahraini government had refused to speak to the channel.

Yesterday, the head of Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority downplayed any rift between the kingdom and Qatar. Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa stressed that "fraternal bonds" between the two countries were "stronger than a plain TV channel's programme", Bahrain's state news agency reported.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse.