22 Oct 2011

Recent comments to the press, most notably the interview conducted with Worldview on October 4th 2011 with the Head of the Commission, underscore the growing concerns we at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), have in respect to the report which is to be published by the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry (BICI). Indeed, we were very surprised to learn that Mr Bassiouni had conducted yet another interview regarding the situation in Bahrain after publicly announcing that he would no longer agree to any further interviews after his comments to Al-Ayam.

BCHR welcomed the establishment of the Commission in June this year and have assisted the Commission to the full extent possible. It is, therefore, with a sense of growing dismay that we have followed the statements given and published on behalf of the Commission. The interview with Worldview has reinforced the conviction amongst many that the Commission’s findings have been pre-determined.

The strong implication maintained throughout the interview was that no blame could ever be presumed of the King of Bahrain or his cabinet, that they should be distanced from any fault attributed and that the fault lay with particular misguided individuals. The Head of the Commission’s remarks consistently reinforced this message. His response as to why the Commission was established was that he was “able to convince both the King and the cabinet that… you need to know how functional or dysfunctional your government is, in particular each ministry” with the clear implication that any dysfunction was somehow removed from the responsibility of the heads of government, notwithstanding that part of the Head of Commission’s investigation should have looked at whether the reality in Bahrain is that ministries do not act independently of the will of the monarchy.

Criticism in respect of the Commission was dismissed by Professor Bassiouni as a “campaign by the opposition to discredit the Commission”. We would suggest that such a ‘campaign’ was rather a reaction that happened amongst many Bahrainis because of statements which had been made early on in the commission and resulted in the frustration and anger of people who were victims of human rights violations. The language which was used in the interview with Worldview to describe the conflict in Bahrain is an example of this: the situation was presented as a “Shiaa rebellion” which created a Shiaa-Sunni split within the country. The use of the word “rebellion” implies violence, and many international human rights organizations have attested that the majority of the protests were peaceful. This over-simplified presentation of the facts insults the involvement of the many individuals from both the Shiaa and Sunni population who were involved in the peaceful protest movement. In addition, it backs the government’s claims that this was a Shiaa uprising, rather than protests led by citizens for legitimate demands. Reference is also made in the interview that, as part of the split in opinion, the Shiaa of Bahrain may be seeking an Islamic republic. The Head of Commission said, "if you go to the Shia they will say... maybe we do want an Islamic republic". Such views have not been expressed by any of the major parties involved in the protest movement. Framing the request of the protest movement in this light is not only factually incorrect but also has damaging consequences in respect of future engagement with western governments. In addition, it may justify the Bahraini government’s excessive and widespread crackdown on the protesters, and their preferred narrative that the events represent a plot instigated by the Iranian government.

Possibly the most disappointing remarks emanating from the Worldview interview were in respect of the person sentenced to death and the arrest, detention and sentences of the medical staff of Salmaniya Hospital. In the interview, he began by confirming that the person who received the death penalty is guilty of his crime, and seemed to justify the sentence against him. Due to the conditions of the majority of detainees, as well as the widespread use of torture, any case presented before a military court in Bahrain needs to be re-tried, with proper evidence, and according to international standards. Then, he dismissed out of hand the numerous reports detailing abuses in the treatment of protesters, with ambulances being prevented from leaving hospitals to treat patients due to the presence of military personnel in hospital facilities with the intention of intimidating both medical staff and patients. Instead, he suggests that the medical staff who acted in accordance with the obligations of their profession were “not exactly angels” and that some of them had in fact attempted to take over the hospital. Such accusations have been condemned not only by human rights organizations worldwide, but also by international governments. This again legitimizes the Bahraini government’s narrative of events and is demonstrably disproved by documentary evidence shown in the Al-Jazeera documentary Shouting in the Dark, in which Sunni and Shia doctors attest to non-discrimination in their treatment of all protesters and show the cameras the ID cards of Ministry of Interior plainclothes thugs who were injured and came for treatment at the hospital.

When asked about the sentences passed, the initial response was defensive and argued that the death penalty passed by a military court was justified. No mention was made as to allegations that such a confession was extracted by way of torture and that the confession was aired on national television before the military court pronounced its judgment. Nor was any mention made of the passing of such a judgment by a military court despite the accused having no connection to the military.

We note the Head of Commission’s closing remarks that the Commission is entrusted with a moral and ethical duty. We would respectfully submit that in order to satisfy such a moral and ethical duty the Commission should be bound to give a balanced and representative account of the protest movement and the government’s response. The remarks provided in this interview fall short of this standard, too often following the official government line whilst ensuring that any criticism leveled against the Bahraini government is never leveled at senior officials and is expressed in the form of “mistakes” and “botched” administrative processes. These make light of serious human right violations which have been inflicted on a substantial number of Bahraini citizens by their own government.

We would request that the Commission refrains from issuing judgments regarding the report due to be published at the end of the month, in keeping with his own previous statements. The interviews given by Professor Bassiouni in respect of the protest movement in Bahrain have consistently shown a tendency to take a government line on important aspects of the events of 2011. The BCHR reaffirms our commitment to a national reconciliation based on the outcome and recommendations of the BICI report and hopes that a fair and balanced report will be forthcoming, despite our reservations over the previous statements of Professor Bassiouni.