MANAMA The academic who investigated abuses during Bahrain's crackdown on pro-democracy protests last year returns this week to a Gulf Arab country still racked by violence, to assess how far the government has followed through on reforms he recommended.
Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American professor at DePaul University in Chicago, surprised many with his withering assessment of abuses committed under martial law imposed after protests inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Riot police still fight daily with young, mainly Shi'ite, protesters, who complain they continue to be marginalised by Bahrain's Sunni rulers. Clashes are becoming more violent in the run-up to the February 14 anniversary of the start of the protests.
The strategically located island state is a key ally for Washington in its stand-off with Shi'ite Iran.
Last November, in front of King Hamad and senior officials, Bassiouni detailed incidents of torture including sexual abuse, electric shocks and threats with dogs used to extract confessions and as punishment for protesting.
This time, Bassiouni and his team will assess whether Bahrain has reformed policing, reinstated sacked employees, and investigated torture claims and military trials in line with recommendations by his independent commission.
Bassiouni told DePaul students before he left that Bahrain was not moving fast enough to calm street protests.
"I think the public is going to come at the end and say 'you know what, you're holding all of these investigations behind closed doors - this is a whitewash' and I think they would be perfectly justified in saying so," he said. (here)
Keen to demonstrate that it is acting on the report, the Bahrain government has chronicled the steps it has implemented on a dedicated website. (www.govactions.bh)
Bassiouni told Reuters his mission - at King Hamad's invitation - would be finished by early March.
"I will be issuing a report on the status of implementation of the BICI (independent commission) recommendations at that point," he said.
He suggested to his DePaul students that disputes within the ruling Al Khalifa family were holding up political and economic reforms. "You have to choose between maintaining the unity of the family or the regime, or the unity of the country," he said.
The BICI report said that 35 people had died in the unrest up to June, when martial law was lifted, but activists say the ongoing violence has taken the total to over 60, including 14 since Bassiouni was last in the country in November. The government disputes the causes of death.
Sunni-ruled states nearby are uneasy that reforms giving Bahrain's lawmakers more powers would not only raise questions about a lack of democracy in their own countries, but may also empower the Shi'ite majority in Bahrain and other Gulf states.
That may embolden Iran, an issue of particular concern to the United States whose Fifth Fleet is based in Manama.
The Shia-dominated opposition want the power of the appointed upper chamber cut, a prime minister who has been in power for more than 40 years removed and an elected government. Opposition parties said they would meet Bassiouni on Friday.
One Western diplomat said the government needed time to implement reforms.
"There is a will at the top but the challenge is to ensure that the bureaucracy is as serious and to follow up with mechanisms," the diplomat said. "You have this gaping wound, especially among the Shia community, that has to be addressed."
(Editing by Ben Harding)
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