WASHINGTON The United States urged its ally Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, to quickly address abuses laid out in a report on Wednesday that alleged that Bahraini security forces used torture to obtain confessions.
A Bahraini government-commissioned panel charged with investigating abuses found that Bahrain's security forces used excessive force to suppress pro-democracy protests this year, saying five people were tortured to death.
The United States, which has been faulted by rights activists for not criticizing the island kingdom more sharply for the crackdown, appeared to carefully balance its demand for the abuses to be addressed with praise for its Gulf ally.
"We are deeply concerned about the abuses identified in the report and urge the Government and all elements of Bahraini society to address them in a prompt and systematic manner," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.
"We believe the ... report offers a historic opportunity for all Bahrainis to participate in a healing process that will address long-standing grievances and move the nation onto a path of genuine, sustained reform," Clinton added.
Neither Clinton's statement, nor one from the White House, hinted at any distance between the Obama administration and the royal family that rules Bahrain, although Washington has said it will weigh human rights in decisions about military sales.
Clinton made a point of stressing the "strategic interests" that the two countries share, a likely reference to containing Bahrain's neighbor Iran, which the United States suspects of pursuing nuclear weapons and accuses of supporting terrorism.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear weapons.
The events in Bahrain have posed a conundrum for the United States, which has sought to maintain good relations with a country that is a cornerstone of its strategy to preserve the flow of oil from the Middle East while remaining true to its support for freedom of speech and peaceful protests.
The government-commissioned report, designed to help heal sectarian divisions between the island kingdom's Sunni rulers and majority Shi'ites, acknowledged five people had been tortured to death but said abuses were isolated incidents.
However the inquiry panel, led by Egyptian-American international law expert Cherif Bassiouni, dismissed Bahrain's allegation of Iranian interference in fomenting unrest, saying that was not supported by any evidence.
"In many cases security agencies in the government of Bahrain resorted to excessive and unnecessary force," Bassiouni said at the king's palace, adding that some detainees suffered electric shocks, and beatings with rubber hoses and wires.
Bahrain's Shi'ite-led opposition reacted coolly to the report, some saying it did not go far enough while others argued that those responsible for abuses remained in office.
White House press secretary Jay Carney urged Bahrain's authorities to hold those responsible to account while praising its ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, for what he described as a "courageous" decision to commission the report.
"The report identifies a number of disturbing human rights abuses ... and it is now incumbent upon the government of Bahrain to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations and put in place institutional changes to ensure that such abuses do not happen again," Carney said.
Bahrain's finance minister, Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, gave interviews in Washington to make the case that the government genuinely wanted reform and reconciliation.
"Listening to that report is not easy but the fact that we are doing it, in an Arab country, shows our interest to put the truth on the table in front of the whole world," he told Reuters. "He (King Hamad) is sincerely interested in making sure that we deal with the issues and move ahead."