MANAMA, Nov 22 (Reuters) - Bahraini rights activists welcomed on Tuesday a government vow to outlaw torture and take action against those who committed abuse during unrest this year, but said they wanted to see senior officials fired so the Gulf state can turn a page.
Bahrain’s government admitted on Monday that security forces had used “excessive force” and mistreated detainees in the effort to crush a pro-democracy movement this year. It also said it had started prosecuting 20 officers, but gave no details.
The confession came ahead of the release of an independent report expected to criticise the handling of the unrest in the island state, now mired in sectarian strife between majority Shi‘ite Muslims and a ruling Sunni Muslim elite.
Bahrain’s response to the report could determine whether the U.S. Congress approves an arms sale.
“It’s a good step. Torture has not been described in our law, but people have to be brought to justice,” said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Human Rights Association (BHRA), who added that testimony from detainees indicated four members of the royal family were personally involved in abuses.
“We don’t know who these 20 people (being prosecuted) are, or if they have really been questioned or not,” he said.
Observers are focused on whether the report, to be unveiled in a high-profile ceremony at one of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s palaces, describes torture as systematic.
Bahrain has argued the cases were restricted to some officers who acted alone, and has challenged the term “systematic”.
“It’s not isolated cases, it’s an order for something happening systematically. It was from ministers and above ministers,” Rajab said. “We don’t want them to try to simplify the crime, it’s bigger than they have trying to present.”
Bahrain called in Saudi and UAE troops in mid-March to help crush the protests, which were inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. It then imposed martial law.
The government, dominated by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, says protests were fomented by Shi‘ite power Iran and aimed to establish a Shi‘ite Islamist republic. Opposition parties say the Saudi-allied dynasty is playing on sectarian fears to avoid reform.
The BHRA issued its estimates of numbers of dead, detained and abused at a news conference on Tuesday.
Rajab said around half of more than 3,000 people who were detained reported their case to the BHRA. Of those, 1,330 said they faced torture or abuse including electric shock, suspension by hands or feet, shackling of hands behind the back for days, solitary confinement, and humiliation by exposure to urine.
The BHRA puts the total dead at 45, mainly during the month of protests, but also five in detention during martial law and several in clashes which have continued almost nightly.
Ali Yousef al-Sitrawi, aged 16, was killed in a protest in Manama last week. Officials said a police vehicle lost control because of oil spilt on the road deliberately by protesters, but activists say police often drive straight at them in clashes.
Riot police were out in force in Sitra on Tuesday where the funeral ceremonies for Sitrawi were taking place. Streets, littered in rubber bullets, were blocked off by residents, and helicopters flew overhead.
Jalila al-Sayed, a lawyer defending many of the hundreds of people who have faced trial under military law, said the government’s mea culpa on use of force and abuse could render most if not all the verdicts invalid.
“Every judgement from the military court was based on detainee confessions. It is highly likely they were extracted under torture. So should those cases go ahead, should proceedings be suspended?” she told the conference.
Al-Sayed said the number of prosecutions the government mentioned of 20 was remarkably small.
“That’s really appalling. The question is, how many Bahrainis were killed, tortured or victims of your government?” she said.
Describing cases where battered defendants appeared in court, she said lawyers were often informed late of the charges and judges consistently refused to admit evidence of abuse. (Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Joseph Logan and Peter Graff)