DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain’s interior minister said in comments published on Wednesday that police had been given no orders to torture or kill protesters - practices that were highlighted in a government-commissioned independent report last year.
Bahrain’s human rights record has come under scrutiny since the authorities tried to crush Shi‘ite-led demonstrations demanding democratic reform in the Sunni-ruled Gulf state that broke out in February 2011, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere.
“First of all, torture and killing is not part of the government’s policy,” the interior minister, Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, said in comments published in the English-language Gulf Daily News on Wednesday.
“We have never issued any orders or instructions regarding this and we have also never received such orders ... Any officer accused of such charges is being tried in court.”
A commission of international legal experts reported in November that torture had been systematically used to punish and extract confessions from hundreds of protesters during a period of martial law after a crackdown on anti-government protests.
It also said that 35 people, mainly protesters, died during the unrest and that five of them died as a result of torture.
Although Bahraini security forces, backed by Saudi troops, broke up a mass protest camp in Manama in March 2011, police and protesters still clash almost daily. Each side blames the other for the violence.
Egypt’s toppled president, Hosni Mubarak, and his last interior minister, Habib al-Adli, were sentenced to life in prison last week over the deaths of protesters during the Egyptian uprising last year, though the judge said he had no evidence they had given direct orders to shoot protesters.
Bahrain has put several lower-ranking police officers on trial for abuse and lethal torture, but international rights groups and opposition activists say the government is avoiding accountability at higher levels.
A statement released by the government’s Information Affairs Authority in English on Wednesday said 19 security personnel were being investigated, including some officers. It said two officers were sentenced to three months in prison last month.
The rights inquiry published in November did not delve into the question of what, if any, responsibility senior officials may have had for abuses in a country where the ruling Al Khalifa dynasty dominates political, security and judicial posts.
Some detainees have reported that some royals, including Nasser bin Hamad, who is to head Bahrain’s delegation to the Olympic Games in London next month, had taken part in abusing detainees. He has not commented publicly on the accusations.
The government accuses the protesters, who mainly come from the Shi‘ite majority, of being agents of Shi‘ite power Iran.
Separately, prosecutors ordered the rearrest of prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab for publishing a series of tweets after the Mubarak verdict asking Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman to step down and accusing him of corruption.
A government statement said Rajab had insulted residents by suggesting they took to the streets in support of the veteran prime minister, an uncle of the king and in his post since 1971, for financial gain.
Rajab’s lawyer Mohammed al-Tajer said the Twitter attacks by the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and an appearance on Al Jazeera English this week had enflamed the authorities.
Dozens of people have been killed in protests and clashes, including some who were in police detention, since martial law was lifted a year ago, activists say. The Interior Ministry says it is investigating those incidents.
A Shi‘ite man was found dead and covered in birdshot wounds during Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix in April the night after he had been involved in clashes with police.
An independent autopsy found last month that a Shi‘ite man who apparently drowned in January had probably been tortured with electric shocks.
The leading opposition party Wefaq says total deaths since the uprising began now exceed 80. The government disputes the figure, saying some fatalities were not related to the unrest.
United Nations rights bodies have expressed concern over what they say is excessive use of teargas during demonstrations.
“I assure everyone that the gas police use is teargas which is used in several other countries and is not poisonous,” the minister told Gulf News.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Alison Williams