WYSO

Bahrain Sets Up Panel To Investigate Unrest

Jul 29, 2011
Originally published on August 3, 2011 10:14 am

The government of Bahrain has invited a renowned international legal scholar to investigate what went on during mass protests in February and March, and the brutal crackdown on the largely Shiite opposition that ensued. More than 30 people died, hundreds were detained and beaten, and thousands were fired from their jobs.

The commission is headed by Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born legal expert who has investigated war crimes and human rights violations in the Balkans, Rwanda, Afghanistan and, most recently, Libya.

Bassiouni and a team of international investigators are taking testimony from both the government and the opposition. The commission will then issue a report and recommendations to Bahrain's king.

Bassiouni says unlike the 9/11 Commission, which was made up of former politicians, or a U.N. commission that investigates a country whether the ruler likes it or not, the Bahrain commission is different.

"This is a first of its kind in the world," he says. "That is, for a government to appoint a commission of inquiry but to select the composition of the committee from international personalities and to give it total independence."

'A Structural Issue'

Still, the commission is paid by the government of Bahrain. And Bassiouni's media schedule is carefully managed by a former government employee.

Already some Bahrainis say they worry Bassiouni might be too close to the government. In an interview, he said the scale of Bahrain's crackdown was "manageable," compared with the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, for example.

He recounted one story of a Bahraini opposition figure who was detained.

"He said, 'They kept repeatedly hitting me, one officer, with the palm of his hand to the back of the head and the back of my neck.' And I said, 'Did it leave any marks?' 'No.' 'Did it cause you any headaches?' 'No,'" he says. "You know, I fully recognize that this is demeaning, it's improper, it's physical abuse. But this is not like somebody who is engaging in the type of torture that causes severe physical pain."

Still, Bassiouni says, if members of Bahrain's security forces are found to have committed torture, he will recommend they be prosecuted. What he says he can't control is whether these recommendations are heeded or whether those who ordered the torture will ever be known.

He says he hopes the commission will at least serve as a public record — a kind of South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission on paper — that might one day help the disenfranchised Shiite majority of Bahrain reconcile with the country's Sunni leadership.

At a press conference in Bahrain's capital, Manama, Khalil al-Marzooq, a leader of the country's main Shiite opposition group, said by focusing on individual cases of abuse, Bassiouni's commission won't get at the larger problems.

"It means more than somebody fired you. It means more than a policeman beat you in the street. It's more than a policeman tortured you in custody," he says. "It's a structural issue.

A structural issue, Marzooq says, that can be fixed only by reforming the political system, not by inviting international legal scholars to clean up Bahrain's image.

Retaliation Fears

A poem Ayat al-Gormezi read during the protests back in March likens Bahrain's prime minister to a rat, and says he deserves the same fate as Saddam Hussein, who was hanged.

Gormezi was captured and sent to jail for three and a half months for reading her poems. She says she was beaten so badly she regularly passed out.

Gormezi says she will tell the Bassiouni commission what happened to her, even though she's afraid the government will try to use it against her someday down the road.

"I do believe it's my obligation," she says, "even though I doubt it will do much good."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Bahrain.

KELLY MCEVERS: Bassiouni and a team of international investigators are taking testimony from both the government side in Bahrain and the opposition side. The commission will then issue a report and recommendations to Bahrain's king. Bassiouni says unlike the 9/11 Commission, which was made up of former national politicians, or a U.N. commission that investigates a country whether the ruler likes it or not, the Bahrain commission is different.

CHERIF BASSIOUNI: This is a first of its kind in the world, that is for a government to appoint a commission of inquiry, but to select the composition of the committee from international personalities and to give it total independence.

MCEVERS: Still, the commission is paid by the government of Bahrain. And Bassiouni's schedule is carefully managed by former government employees. Already, some Bahrainis say they worry Bassiouni might be too close to the government. In an interview, he seemed underwhelmed by the scale of Bahrain's crackdown, compared to, say, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. He recounted one story of a Bahraini opposition figure who was detained.

BASSIOUNI: Well, he said they kept repeatedly hitting me, one officer, with the palm of his hand to the back of my head and back of my neck. And I said, did it leave any marks? No. Did it cause you any headaches? No. You know, I fully recognize that this is demeaning, it's improper, it's physical abuse. But this is not like somebody who is engaging in the type of torture that causes severe physical pain.

MCEVERS: Still, Bassiouni says, if members of Bahrain's security forces are found to have committed torture, he will recommend they be prosecuted. What he says he can't control is whether these recommendations are heeded, or whether those who ordered the torture will ever be known.

KHALIL MARZOOQ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: At a press conference in Bahrain's capitol, Manama, Khalil Marzooq, a leader of country's main Shiite opposition group, said by focusing on individual cases of abuse, Bassiouni's commission won't get at the larger problems.

BASSIOUNI: It means more than somebody fired you. It means more than a policeman beating you in the street. It's more than a policeman torturing you in custody. It means a structural issue.

MCEVERS: A structural issue, Marzooq says, that can only be fixed by reforming the political system, not by inviting international legal scholars to clean up Bahrain's image.

AYAT AL QORMEZI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Ayat al Qormezi read this poem during the protests back in March. It likens Bahrain's prime minister to a rat, and says he deserves the same fate as Saddam Hussein, who was hanged. Qormezi was captured and sent to jail for three-and-a-half months for reading her poems. She says she was beaten so badly, she regularly passed out.

AL QORMEZI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Manama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISE KELLY: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.