Bahrain's inquiry into protests is 'unique'

The Bahrain Independent Commission was set up in June by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as a fact-finding commission independent of the government, tasked with investigating any allegations of human-rights abuses.
Thousands of Bahraini anti-government protesters wave flags and pictures of jailed opposition leaders on Friday night during a rally in the Shiite village of Karzakan, Bahrain. The protest was organised by Al Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition group.
Thousands of Bahraini anti-government protesters wave flags and pictures of jailed opposition leaders on Friday night during a rally in the Shiite village of Karzakan, Bahrain. The protest was organised by Al Wefaq, the largest Shiite opposition group.

MANAMA //The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry is a novel concept.

Led by a panel of international legal experts, it was set up in June by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as a fact-finding commission independent of the government, tasked with investigating allegations of human-rights abuses.

The inquiry does not fall under the United Nations, nor does it answer to the Bahraini government, according to Cherif Bassiouni, the commission's chairman.

It is, in his words, a "unique" initiative that aims to establish the scale of the human-rights abuses and look at who was responsible for the tumultuous events that have taken place in Bahrain since February. Mr Bassiouni claims this is the first time that a fact-finding commission has been set up by a head of state, that is international in composition and independent of the government.

"I hope it will set a precedent in the region in particular, where so much is happening," Mr Bassiouni said in a telephone interview from the United States. "Having the practice of this type of fact-finding or truth commission is likely to bring about an improvement in the human-rights situation in the Arab world."

Mr Bassiouni and his fellow commissioners - four non-Bahraini legal scholars - aim to establish whether human-rights violations carried out since February were systemic and part of a government policy, or simply crimes committed by individuals.

Investigators working with the commission are now on the ground in Bahrain, collecting information on serious allegations including torture, killings and mass sackings for involvement in protests calling for political reform that were sparked in February.

The commission is working with preliminary figures, including 35 people who died because of the violence, 400 injured, 1,500 arrested and close to 3,000 people sacked from their jobs. The royal decree that established the commission compels government bodies to cooperate with the investigation, which is also looking into the role played by opposition groups. The scope of the inquiry also covers the role of private foreign security contractors believed to be operating in Bahrain.

"Our teams are going to morgues, to hospitals, to police stations, through the records of the Ministry of Interior, the records of the national security force, the records of the military prosecutor general, the attorney-general," said Mr Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American. "So, we are covering all these bases to get the accurate numbers."

Although the numbers of dead and injured may be small by comparison to other countries in crisis such as Libya, Mr Bassiouni said the violence has had a "profound traumatic impact" on a country where sectarian divisions have also deepened.

"Bahrain is a very closely knit society and it's a small country. So, even a small number of deaths like 35 has an enormous traumatic experience on the population," he said.

The work of the commission is based on similar UN inquiries, such as the inquiry into human-rights violations in Libya, which is also headed by Mr Bassiouni. The five commissioners are supported by an undisclosed number of investigators. Mr Bassiouni did say, however, that all of the investigators are of Arab background, fluent in Arabic and English, with experience in legal, police or human-rights work.

Plans for the commission were announced by King Hamad at the end of June and the panel's final report will be made public at the end of October. In a speech announcing the formation of the fact-finding panel, King Hamad said it was crucial to "look back and to determine exactly what happened in February and March, and to consider the reactions to those events".

"There were victims of the violence that took place. They must not be forgotten," he said.

However, with the king responsible for setting-up the commission, concerns have been raised about the inquiry's impartiality. Some have questioned the independence of an inquiry funded by the government, while others fear the investigation could be an attempt to mollify the opposition.

Moreover, opposition activists have stressed that the commission should not be seen as a solution to a protracted political problem that predates the February crisis.

For its part, the commission, which staunchly maintains that it is operating independently of the government, is urging people to cooperate with the inquiry.

"I do think that a lot of people in Bahrain are sceptical because they've been talking about reforms in the country for the last 10 years and the reforms haven't happened and people are disappointed and they think, 'Oh my God, that's just another technique to postpone things'," Mr Bassiouni said.

"They simply have to cooperate with the commission and see what the results are. Rather than sit on the sidelines and say 'I don't think you're going to do anything', reach out, help and see what we can do together."

So far there does appear to be a desire from across the political spectrum to cooperate with the inquiry. Several civil society and political organisations are in the process of compiling shadow reports to present to the commission. Among them is Al Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group, which has a team of 500 volunteers tasked with collecting information and documenting 50 categories of human-rights violations - including killings, arbitrary detention, torture and sectarian discrimination.

"We are also going to make this parallel report, so if [the commission] announce their report and we feel they ignored points, then we have our own record," said Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, a senior member of Al Wefaq.

A new pro-government bloc, the National Unity Assembly - a largely Sunni movement that came to prominence earlier this year as a counter to opposition groups - is also in the process of documenting human-rights violations it believes have taken place since February. Abdul Latif Al Mahmood, the chairman of the group known locally as Al Tajamuh, described the work of the commission as a "good step".

"We believe Bassiouni is here to look into what happened and know the truth," he said.

While stressing the importance of the commission's work, Muneera Fakhro, a member of the liberal Waad party, said she is apprehensive about what could happen in the next three months before the inquiry announces its findings, especially while people remain in prison and clashes continue.

"The king could show a gesture and release the prisoners, and ask those people to go back to their jobs," she said.

"For now we have to wait and see. This is one of our only hopes right now."

 

zconstantine@thenational.ae

Published: August 7, 2011 04:00 AM

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