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Mon 25 Jul 2011 11:08 AM

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Bahrain panel to probe army, torture claims

Army is ‘not above the law’, says chairman of investigation into crackdown

Bahrain panel to probe army, torture claims
The panel will investigate the actions of police and army officers during the March crackdown on protests in the Gulf state

A commission tasked by Bahrain to investigate weeks of
protests that rocked the Gulf island kingdom said Sunday it would look at the
role of the security forces in the unrest and examine charges of torture.

At a news conference marking the launch of the five-member
panel's investigation, chairman Cherif Bassiouni said his team would look at 30
police officers being investigated by the Interior Ministry for allegedly not
following procedures.

He said the army would also be investigated.

"We will investigate the role of the army. The army is
not above the law and not beyond the law," Bassiouni said, adding most of
the incidents under investigation happened while the military was in charge.

Bahrain's Sunni rulers imposed martial law and crushed weeks
of pro-democracy protests led mostly by the Shi'ite majority in March, lifting
the state of emergency some four months later.

During the crackdown, hundreds of people were arrested, most
of them Shi'ites, and some 2,000 who were sacked.

Tensions are still simmering in the Gulf Arab state, with
small protests erupting daily in Shi'ite villages ringing the capital since
emergency law ended on June 1.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa set up the panel of human
rights and legal experts in June after facing international criticism for the
crackdown, including from long-time ally the United States, whose strategic
Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.

Panel chief Bassiouni is an Egyptian-American law professor
and UN war crimes expert who was involved in the formation of the Hague-based
International Criminal Court (ICC) and recently headed a UN inquiry into events
in Libya.

The commission also includes Canadian judge and former ICC
president Philippe Kirsch, British human rights lawyer Nigel Rodley, Iranian
lawyer Mahnoush Arsanjani and Kuwaiti Islamic law expert Badria al-Awadhi.

Bahrain has said it will give the commission access to
official files and allow it to meet witnesses in secret. But opposition groups
have argued bias may mar a mission set up by the government.

Bassiouni said the panel was investigating the 33 deaths
recorded during the protests and crackdown, as well as 400 cases of injuries.
He also said the commission would investigate claims of torture in detention,
including of several medical workers.

"[The mandate] also includes a number of allegations of
torture including that of the offences which occurred against medical
personnel, which are well documented by international human rights
groups," Bassiouni told reporters.

Bahrain denies any systematic abuse by police and has said all
charges of torture will be investigated.

The government has accused protesters of a sectarian agenda
backed by Shi'ite power Iran, just across Gulf waters.

Despite the opposition's denials, such suspicions linger
among the Sunni population and highlight sectarian tensions that continue to
divide the kingdom.

Bassiouni told reporters the panel would hand over its
report to the king in October but said the real task would be to act on the
commission's recommendations.

"The risk is that there are too many high expectations
of what we may be able to accomplish," he said. "It becomes a matter
of internal significance to act on the recommendations ... this crisis had a
traumatic effect on the people of Bahrain."