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After Commission Documents Torture Incidents, What’s Next for Bahrain?

November 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
An independent commission released findings on the upheavals that shook the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain earlier this year and the crackdown that followed. Margret Warner discusses the events and the Bassiouni report with Bahrain's finance minister, Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalifa, and the editor of al Wasat, Mansoor al Jamri.
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MARGARET WARNER: And we have two perspectives now on the events and the Bassiouni report, the first from Bahrain’s finance minister, Sheikh Ahmed al-Khalifa. He’s a member of the ruling royal family.

And, welcome, Mr. Minister.

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA, Bahraini finance minister: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: This is a pretty tough report, finding systematic abuse of the opposition and of protesters. Do you agree with those findings?

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: We welcome the report.

And the report comes after the national dialogue as well, which is another step where all walks of society came together to discuss what we want Bahrain to be like. And 291 recommendations came through the national dialogue.

Today’s report is a second step by an independent commission that clearly sets out their point of view, an independent point of view, of what happened in Bahrain. There are things in the report that we are not happy about. But we are at a stage of welcoming the report, are going to look very closely at this report to make sure that these things never happen again in Bahrain.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you look at all the instances — and it’s really very comprehensively documented, whether it was at the hospital or in the prisons or at the protests — it raises the question of who directed all this to happen. They talked about systematic abuse. Who was in charge? Who was making those decisions?

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: The report didn’t say systemic.

MARGARET WARNER: No, systematic.

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: Systematic, which referred to individuals or groups of individuals that did these actions.

And in the king’s speech, we heard that there was going to be pursuit of all these individuals to make sure everyone is held accountable to their actions. That is something we’re not proud of, but it is a report that we felt is necessary so that we deal with all these issues.

MARGARET WARNER: So is your view, then, that these were individual actions or unit actions; this wasn’t a policy set by the government?

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: This is definitely not a policy. First of all, the report says that. And, second of all, I am a member of the government. I would know if this was a policy of the government. And it isn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, another key finding in this report is that they really found what they said was no discernible link between the government of Iran and what happened in February and March. Does your government accept that?

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: We believe there is the media bombardment. We believe, since 1981 coup attempt, we believe there’s a lot of actions…

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about Iranian media which could broadcast, you mean, to Bahrain?

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: Twenty-four hours’ media bombardment of Bahrain. Anyone who can listen to the Arabic media continuous bombardment on Bahrain can see the involvement of Iran.

What is important right now is that this report and its findings become a basis of what we will do next. And that is the next stage.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you — is your government and the state media, which also came in for serious criticism in this for basically inciting feelings among Sunnis against Shia, going to stop tarring opposition figures and protesters and dissidents with the brush of, oh, they’re Iranian agents or they’re tools of Iran or they’re somehow traitors to their country?

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: I think what is important now is looking at how we’re going to implement recommendations that came out in the report.

And the next step would be that certain — number of ministers are being tasked now with looking at the report, going through it, because the report outlines the methodology of how to actually deal with the report, which includes civil society, which includes government working side by side. And this will be made as a recommendation to cabinet to be taken forward, which will create a process for implementing recommendations.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me just get your reaction to a couple, because there are so many of these recommendations. One was that there should be a permanent human rights commission and ways of inquiring immediately into allegations of abuse, that all this — your security forces really need basic human rights, civil rights training.

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: On the issue of human rights, we have already, as a government, approved a law and sent it to parliament to be debated in which we are making the institution that we have in human rights operate more in line with U.N. standards, more in line with the Paris Principles to make sure that that law is clear.

The same thing on torture. We widened the definition of torture now to narrow that definition to the standards of the U.N. Our aim is to improve the regulations and the laws that we have to best practice around the world. And for this, we will need to implement. We will need laws that are clearer, stronger. We will need to hold people accountable, and we will need to depend on our friends as well to help us in capacity building to make sure that not only the laws are written, but the people are trained and the systems are in place to make sure that this never happens again.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well Finance Minister al-Khalifa, thank you for being with us.

SHEIKH AHMED AL KHALIFA: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: And now another perspective from a newspaper editor I first interviewed in Bahrain earlier this year. He’s Mansoor al-Jamri, co-founder and editor in chief of Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s leading independent newspaper.

He and all his top editors were fired and the paper was turned into a government mouthpiece from April until August.

Jamri joins us from New York, where he is receiving the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2011 International Press Freedom Award.

And, Mansoor al-Jamri, welcome. Good to see you again.

What did you make of the finance minister’s reaction in terms of what it says about the government’s reaction?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI, Al-Wasat: Well, I welcome the finance minister’s statement that this is a — gives us a road map. But I disagree with him that we had a dialogue.

Bahrain didn’t have dialogue. The government had debated some issues with its own employees. There’s a structural problem in the system that, in effect, we have an apartheid system. The Shia has been cleansed out of military, out of civil bureaucracy, out of everywhere. And that has created the roots for continuous frustration and endemic violent events now and then because of the reactions from the security forces and from those who are responsible for imposing the law.

And the findings are damning, in the sense that there are structural issues that needs to be addressed. It’s nothing to do with improvement. We have nothing to improve. We have zero capacity in terms of respect of human rights, in terms of creating or building a nation on the basis of equal citizenship.

The citizenship in Bahrain is broken. We have a broken social contract. And we have a broken society. This is a structural problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just get a little more specific here about the report. So, did you find the report tough? Did you find it complete?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: It’s a very important report.

For the first time, someone will stand up in front of the king of the country to say that the organs of the state committed violations, and that the main accusation against half of the society, at least half of the society, that they belong to Iran is a false proposition.

OK, there’s a propaganda war by an Iranian TV or Iranian channels, but there is a propaganda war by the national TV against half of the society, damning them every day, naming them all sorts of names. So, really, the report is a very important step. Now it gives the — it gives a golden opportunity for the king to initiate a nation rebuilding process.

We need to rebuild our nation, and we need a social — we need another political and social contract that we can be proud of in the 21st century. An apartheid system is something that nobody wants. This is what what we have in Bahrain now. We have effectively something that cannot work.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what are you hearing — and I know you haven’t been actively reporting today, but what are you hearing from Bahrain? How is the opposition reacting to this report?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: The mainstream opposition, those — the groups that are functioning in Bahrain, have welcomed the report. They have thanked Cherif Bassiouni.

And some of them have expressed their doubts that the government will heed the advice and the recommendations. And they’re calling for an international monitoring commission maybe or monitoring process whereby to see that all these recommendations are implemented in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

MARGARET WARNER: And you have been covering and a student of this royal family, this ruling family for a long time. What effect do you think it will have inside this large family? Do you buy the theory that this report was in a way intended to strengthen the hand of the more progressive factions? And do you think it would have that effect?

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: Well, I hope so.

There are reform-minded people, leaders in the country. There is the crown prince. The king himself today came very strong in supporting some sort of reform. The king initiated the reform process in 2001. And this reform was — these reforms were abandoned a few years ago. And what we saw was the result of abandoning the reforms.

I think we need to reinitiate those reforms. We need to reinvigorate the process. The royal family has to streamline its differences. And we really need — they really need to look at their countrymen as citizens equal before the law, and everyone must be accountable, whether he’s a member of the ruling family or a member of public. We are all equal before the law.

MARGARET WARNER: Mansoor al-Jamri, editor of Al-Wasat, Bahrain’s independent newspaper, thank you so much.

MANSOOR AL-JAMRI: Thank you.