Manama, Bahrain – The Bahraini government has made “significant” progress in implementing reforms over the last four months, according to a new report from a commission appointed by the king, a claim which opposition leaders have already dismissed as an exaggeration.
The National Commission delivered its report to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa during a lavish ceremony at Sakhir Palace. It was reminiscent of the scene nearly four months earlier, when a previous panel, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) reported on widespread abuses committed last year during the unrest here.
Tuesday’s report was a follow-up to the BICI’s work, a measure of the government’s progress in implementing more than two dozen recommendations. And it was overwhelmingly positive, praising the government’s work as “unprecedented”.
“The commission believes that the progress to date has been a credit to the work that has been achieved during this period,” said Ali Saleh al-Saleh, the chairman of the commission.
‘The land of a million committees’
But critics quickly dismissed the commission’s work as biased. It was appointed by the king, and many of its members, including al-Saleh, are drawn from the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, which is also appointed by the king. “The regime is telling us how well the regime has done at reforming,” one opposition activist said.
Another dismissed it as a stalling exercise. “They used to call Bahrain the land of a million palms,” he said, referring to the hardy trees which dot the desert landscape. “Maybe now we’ll be the land of a million committees.”
Members of Al Wefaq, the largest opposition political society in Bahrain, claim that less than 10 per cent of the BICI report’s recommendations have been implemented. And they say the recommendations, which focus mostly on human rights, will do little to address underlying problems in Bahrain.
“What the opposition really wants is more serious political change that will give them more say in parliament and government,” said Abdul Jalil Khalil, a former member of parliament from Al Wefaq.
The government has unquestionably made progress on implementing some of the report’s recommendations. The National Security Agency, for example – responsible for some of the most egregious detention practices – was stripped of its arrest powers by a royal decree in December.
Civilian courts are reviewing some of the cases originally referred to so-called National Safety Courts, the military tribunals which handled hundreds of cases last year.
On other issues, though, critics say the government’s reforms have done little to change realities on the ground. The interior ministry issued a new code of conduct for police officers, for example, and has begun installing closed-circuit cameras in interrogation rooms, actions it says will curtail what the BICI report described as “widespread” torture of detainees.
But human rights groups say that people are still being tortured, despite the government’s assurances. Several people have died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody since the BICI report was released.
Police officials acknowledged on Tuesday that they had not installed recording equipment at riot police bases, for example, which are separate from the regular police. The riot police are the ones who usually respond to anti-government protests; rights groups here say detainees are sometimes tortured on their bases before being transported to regular police stations.
‘The key thing is accountability’
The BICI report also urged the Bahraini government to investigate claims of torture, and deaths attributed to the security forces. Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, the justice minister, said his office was making progress toward holding people accountable.
“If there is a person who was directly responsible for torture, then he is being investigated,” he said.
Al Khalifa said that about 50 people were being investigated. But just eight have actually been brought to trial, and no high-ranking officials have been charged with abuses.
“When it comes to the legislative and institutional reforms, they have started doing things,” said Said Boumedouha, a researcher at Amnesty International. “But the key thing is accountability. So many people have died, and were tortured… [and] no one in a position of authority has been tried, from what we know.”
Analysts say the National Commission report, and the government’s actions since November, will do little to ease mounting tensions in Bahrain. Opposition activists are increasingly frustrated with negotiations, and some pro-government groups are now urging the king to take a harder line against protesters.
“The country’s rulers clearly feel confident that they can maintain the status quo, keeping protesters in villages and at arm’s length, without having to deal with the substantive issues raised by the opposition,” said Toby Craig Jones, a professor at Rutgers University who has written extensively on Bahrain. “It’s a calculated gamble, but a very risky one.”