Bahrain is co-operating with an investigation into anti-government protests it crushed but that will do little to resolve the sectarian political tensions behind the unrest, according to the head of the inquiry.
The kingdom has asked international lawyers to investigate its greatest political turmoil in years, which began with anti-government protests led by the Shia Muslim majority in February.
Bahrain called in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as it cracked down on demonstrators in March, detaining more than a thousand in a campaign marked by repeated allegations of torture.
Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian American who has led similar UN inquiries in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, said Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifah family was approaching the aftermath of the unrest differently than it had when sectarian-tinged political violence last swept the kingdom in the mid-1990s.
“The situation has evolved because the king and certainly the crown prince are much more committed to the rule of law and human rights than other persons in the government and the Al-Khalifa clan,” he said in a phone interview late on Thursday.
“The mere fact that the king has appointed this commission and the interior ministry is co-operating shows me things have changed.”
The investigation itself, he warned, cannot right relations between Bahrain’s rulers and its Shia population, which says it is systematically denied access to land, housing and state employment on sectarian grounds.
“This doesn’t address the endemic problems, doesn’t address the need for political change, for a new constitution, the economic disparities or the political division of Sunnis and Shia. All the underlying problems remain,” Bassiouni said.
“That’s not going to solve the problems of power disparities between the Shia population and the Sunni rulers, nor the feeling of injustice the Shia community has.”
The investigation follows a state-orchestrated “National Dialogue” over the protests and crackdown, which in late July proposed expanding the powers of Bahrain’s elected parliament. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah granted that request, while preserving the dominance of an upper house that his court picks.
Bahraini activists and rights groups have said the government-funded commission, though well-intentioned, is cut off from people who fear reprisal for giving testimonies that implicate security forces in abuses in an ongoing crackdown.
Bassiouni, a recognised authority on international criminal and human rights law, disputed that claim, saying the investigation—formally known as the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry—had intervened to free detainees and acted on allegations of abuse.
“We have caused the release of 41 people in the last week, caused the suspension of a police chief and several officers. Two were arrested for alleged involvement in torture…all this is from people who gave testimonies,” he said.
“It’s totally untrue that people are afraid of coming forward. It’s not the case that they don’t have anxieties, but that’s because they’ve had bad experiences and they don’t know where this is going.”
Bassiouni estimated there are now about 300 people in detention over the protests, down from a peak of some 1,400. He said he hoped to secure the release of a further 150 in coming days, and cited the interior ministry’s readiness to release detainees as a sign of good faith.
“What I have found so far is the extraordinary willingness of the minister to listen to anything we bring to his attention and act on it, whether it’s suspension of police officers, arrest of police officers, or release of detainees,” he said.
“It leads me to believe that on his part there was never a policy of excessive use of force or torture…that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I think it was a case of people at the lower level acting, and there not being an effective chain of communication, control.”
He declined to say what the investigation had found so far about the conduct of other security forces and the military.