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Fri 1 Mar 2013 09:45 AM

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HRW says Bahrain rulers have failed on reforms

Human Rights Watch makes claims after meeting with top officials, political prisoners

HRW says Bahrain rulers have failed on reforms
Bahraini Shiite Muslims protesters hold petrol bomb during clashes with riot police. (AFP/Getty Images - for illustrative purposes only)

Bahrain’s rulers have made no progress on key reform promises, failing to release unjustly imprisoned activists or to hold accountable high-level officials responsible for torture, Human Rights Watch has said.

The international rights group added that a draft association law adopted by the government significantly undermined what few rights independent non-governmental associations have under the country’s current law.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it had made the assessments after meeting with high-ranking officials and with political prisoners.

“All the talk of national dialogue and reform mean nothing so long as the country’s most prominent human rights and political activists remain unjustly imprisoned while officials responsible for torture and murder remain in their positions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

“The minimum one should expect after the gross abuses by security forces during the 2011 uprising is recognition at the highest level of the security and defense forces, including the Interior and Defense Ministers, that they bear the responsibility for the failures of their forces – failures they have acknowledged – and will account for them.”

During a five-day visit, the first allowed to Human Rights Watch by the government in almost a year, three representatives met with interior minister Lt Gen Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, attorney general Dr Ali Fadl al-Buainain, and Nawaf Abdulla Hamza, head of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) responsible for investigating police excesses and command responsibility.

They also met Major Gen Tariq Hassan, the chief of public security, John Timoney, senior police adviser to the Interior Ministry, and representatives of the Social Development and Human Rights ministries.

Human Rights Watch’s visit was facilitated by the newly established Human Rights Ministry, it said in the statement.

Human Rights Watch said it also met with the ministry’s legal affairs director, Mohamed al-Fazi, and urged the ministry to take an active role in addressing the government’s human rights shortcomings and advocating needed reforms.

In November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) - international experts appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa - concluded that Bahrain’s security forces operated within a “culture of impunity” and that the abuses “could not have happened without the knowledge of higher echelons of the command structure” of the security forces.

Human Rights Watch said, based on the discussions with officials, that authorities have made no progress in investigating and prosecuting higher-level officials responsible for the worst abuses during the 2011 protests.

The abuses resulted in the death of scores of protesters and bystanders, serious injuries to hundreds of people, arrests of thousands more, and more than 300 formal allegations of torture and ill-treatment, it added.

The attorney general and head of the Special Investigations Unit told Human Rights Watch that their investigations into those responsible for the failures of the security forces would conclude by the summer of 2013, but they would not provide information about any progress made in their investigations or about any officials whose roles were being investigated.

Only four low-ranking officers and one first lieutenant have so far been convicted in the deaths of two protesters and serious injury to a third.

“It is mind-boggling that the same officials who were in charge during the unprecedented shootings, beatings, killings, and torture of hundreds of Bahraini citizens have identified no wrongdoing by high-ranking officials,” Whitson said.

“How can any Bahraini citizen believe promises of police overhaul when those responsible for grievous policing failures are still setting policies and able to undermine possible investigations into their roles?”

On February 26, Human Rights Watch visited several of the political and human rights activists, medics, and teachers serving sentences ranging from two years to life in Jaw Prison and met with them privately.

“There can be no real claim that justice is being done in Bahrain so long as these men remain unjustly imprisoned,” Whitson said. “King Hamad should act urgently to release these men if authorities want to restore any sense of justice among the vast majority of the population.”

Human Rights Watch said it raised with officials concern about reports of ongoing excessive and unlawful use of teargas, to which Bahraini opposition activists have attributed at least 16 deaths.