WASHINGTON — An international human rights panel concluded Wednesday that the Sunni Muslim government of the small Gulf island of Bahrain carried out "deliberate" and "systematic" torture against many of the 2,929 people it arrested last spring during protests demanding more democracy.
The panel, headed by Egyptian-born U.S. lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, also said the Bahraini government systematically used excessive force in arrests, deprived defendants of due process in special military courts, and allowed an atmosphere of impunity to take hold, where no one was accountable for upholding Bahrain's own laws.
Bassiouni also dismissed the Bahrain government's allegations that Iran, whose population, like Bahrain's, is majority Shiite Muslim, interfered in the uprising. The evidence presented to the commission "does not establish a discernible link" between specific incidents in Bahrain and the Iranian government, he wrote.
At least 35 people died in the two months after the protests began Feb. 14, including three police officers allegedly killed by demonstrators; 4,439 people were fired from their jobs and charged with joining the protests; and 534 students were expelled from university for the same reason, the report said. In addition, the government destroyed or severely damaged more than 40 places of worship, almost all Shiite.
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who established the commission in June, welcomed the report for identifying the "serious shortcomings" in his government's response to the demonstrations. He promised legal reforms to ensure free speech and prohibit torture and said that officials who violated the law would be held accountable and replaced.
He also promised to consider political reform in the near-absolute monarchy, the chief reason its mostly disenfranchised Shiite Muslim population took to the streets in February and March.
"Above all, we must conceive and implement reforms that satisfy all segments of our population," he said in a speech after receiving Bassiouni's report. "That is the only way to achieve reconciliation, to heal the fractures in our society."
The White House welcomed what it called a "thorough and independent" assessment of the events in Bahrain and said it was incumbent on the kingdom to hold those responsible to account and to put in place institutional changes to ensure the abuses do not recur.
But the White House did not indicate whether it would push Congress to approve the sale of more than $50 million in military equipment to Bahrain, which it called a "longstanding partner of the United States" and is the homeport to the U.S. 5th Fleet.
In Bahrain, Mattar Ebrahim Mattar, a former Shiite legislator who was among those arrested and tortured, said Bassiouni's report "gave some good recommendations that can give the Bahrainis some relief."
But he said that Bassiouni in his public presentation failed to touch on the country's deeper problems — the domination of the political leadership and security apparatus by Sunni Muslims, to the detriment of Shiites, who comprise as much as 70 percent of the population.
Nabeel Rajab, a leading human rights advocate on Bahrain, criticized Bassiouni's report for "not saying who in the regime is responsible, who should be removed," and instead leaving those decisions to the government. Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, had issued an independent report Tuesday that charged the Bahraini government with crimes against humanity, a term first used at the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes tribunal, now applied anytime there is a widespread and systematic violation of the international treaty banning torture.
Bassiouni's report criticized the government of Bahrain for tearing down more than 30 Shiite places of worship at the time of its crackdown, a practice first reported by McClatchy in May.
But Rajab criticized the report for accepting the official explanation that the mosques were illegal structures and for focusing on the timing of the destruction rather than the action itself. "The people were never told they were illegal. And why did the army tear them down? It would have been the job of the municipality. And where was the court proceeding?" he said.
The report's strongest charge against Bahrain was the torture of many detainees, in particular more than a dozen prominent politicians, nearly all Shiite.
"The extent of this physical and psychological mistreatment is evidence of a deliberate practice, which in some cases was aimed at extracting confessions and statements by duress, while in other cases was intended for the purpose of retribution and punishment," the report said. "This systematic practice" ended June 10, the report said.
Turning to arrests, the report said Bahrain security forces between March 21 and April 15 "systematically raided houses" to arrest individuals in a way that terrified the occupants. They broke down doors, forcibly entered, sometimes ransacked the houses, meanwhile hurling sectarian insults and verbal abuse. Women often "were asked to stand in their sleeping clothes, which did not adequately cover their bodies, thus humiliating the women, the children and their arrested spouses and relatives," it said.
Bahrain's government-censored news media played down the criticism in Bassiouni's report and emphasized those elements that supported the Bahrain government's positions. The official news agency's headlines said the Bassiouni report "uncovers medics' crimes," a reference to Shiite doctors now on trial for allegedly denying medical care to Sunnis during the crisis period, something that the Bassiouni report did not in fact do.
"Iran officials and media played an inciting role" was another headline on the news agency, which the Bassiouni report did not support.
Human rights advocate Rajab said he wasn't expecting much from the king's promise to look again at political reform, because "he says that in his speeches all the time." But he added: "It could be a chance for the ruling Sunni elite to grab this as a start, to go ahead with real reform and real reconciliation."
The proof will be in the coming days. "There are still people in jail for free speech," he said. "If no more prisoners are released by tomorrow morning, nothing will change."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011