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Rights Group Urges Probe of Bahraini Crackdown

David Elkins

WASHINGTON, Feb 28 2011 (IPS) - A leading rights group here condemned actions taken by Bahraini security forces in suppressing peaceful protests in recent weeks, including the deaths of seven Bahraini citizens in the last fortnight, and called for a “transparent and independent investigation into government initiated violence”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented a series of government abuses since demonstrations began earlier this month. It demanded that the international community respond with a timely investigation that would lead to the “prosecut[ion of] those responsible for perpetrating the violence as well as for abusing people taken into custody.”

HRW emphasised the need to focus on human rights violations, and said that because of Bahrain’s obligations to international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture, which prohibit actions allegedly taken on behalf of the Bahrain government, sufficient investigations and prosecutions are required.

“The Bahraini government should urgently establish an independent commission tasked with investigating the use of deadly force against peaceful demonstrators and statements by protesters who say they were abused or tortured after arrest,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s Middle East deputy director. “Prosecution of those responsible for any unlawful attacks is a critical element to any meaningful political reform.”

The opposition has called for electoral reform, the release of political prisoners and the formation of a new government. Crown Prince Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa’s regime has modestly attempted to stem the tide of unrest by releasing several hundred political prisoners and pledging to hold a national “dialogue” among opposition groups.

In a statement released by the White House on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama praised al-Khalifa’s latest moves in responding to the protestors’ demands.

“I welcome the announcement by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa about making important changes to the cabinet and restating his commitment to reform,” Obama said.

“As a longstanding partner of Bahrain, the [U.S.] continues to believe that Bahrain’s stability will be enhanced by respecting the universal rights of the people of Bahrain and reforms that meet the aspirations of all Bahrainis,” he added.

While Bahrain is not among the most significant Persian Gulf oil producers, it still ranks as an important strategic ally of the United States, as underscored by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s trip to the country last week. As home to the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet, Bahrain is of particular importance to U.S. interests.

But according to rights groups, despite its modest concessions, Bahrain has not been tolerant of any kind of protest, peaceful or otherwise.

In one blatant human rights violation, a witness described to HRW how Isa Abdul Hassan was shot at point-blank range by government police forces during a raid on Feb. 17 after he refused to move out of Pearl Square as a sign of peaceful protest.

Many of the abuses cited by HRW occurred on the same night when government riot police and security forces, in a highly coordinated attack, encircled protestors camped out in Pearl Square in the early morning hours and, along with the use of lethal force, arbitrarily arrested and detained others in the square.

Unlike recent protests in other regional monarchies such as Jordan and Oman, those in Bahrain have an added religious dynamic at work: al-Khalifa’s Sunni-led government rules over a 70-percent Shia majority.

Hassan Musahima, a controversial Shia cleric and leader of al-Haq – a party considered to be more radical in its political orientation than the opposition parties that initiated protests in Bahrain – returned from exile on Saturday and quickly rallied demonstrators by commemorating those killed in government crackdowns.

Despite anxiety over the possibility of Musahima’s radicalising influence, he voiced concerns similar to those condemned by HRW in Manama’s Pearl Square – the epicentre of the demonstrations in the capital city – and urged for the continuation of peaceful protest.

“You are the leaders and I am your humble servant,” Mushima told followers on Saturday. “I can only offer a few suggestions about peaceful escalation…The tyrant in Tunisia fell. The tyrant in Egypt fell. And the tyrant here will fall as well.”

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