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Bahrain on edge before report on protest crackdown

By Barbara Surk
Associated Press / November 22, 2011

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—The findings of an independent investigation into Bahrain's 10-month-old unrest are still under wraps, but the Gulf kingdom's leaders were working hard in advance to control its possible fallout.

Admissions of excessive force against protesters and promises of more inquiries were part of a pre-emptive narrative ahead of Wednesday's highly anticipated report on the Gulf's main Arab Spring uprising, which also has become a flashpoint between U.S.-backed Gulf states and rival Iran.

The unprecedented wave of demonstrations, street marches and sit-ins by Bahrain's Shiite majority -- which has long complained of systematic discrimination by the ruling Sunni dynasty -- also has unsettled rulers across the oil-rich states who are accustomed to stifling domestic criticism by granting favors and making cash handouts.

The special investigation commission, which was green lighted by Bahrain's rulers in a bid to ease tensions, has spent months interviewing thousands of witnesses, officials and others about the chaotic and bloody months after protests began in February. Details of the report, which will focus on the period between Feb. 14 and March 30, have been a tightly held secret.

But the government's conciliatory tone in advance suggests authorities in the island kingdom believe it could cast a harsh light on the tactics used against demonstrators and already noted in rights groups allegations: widespread arrests, purges from workplaces and universities, destruction of Shiite mosques and jail house abuses.

Some of the strongest accusations have come from medical personnel from Bahrain's main state hospital, who claim they were beaten and ridiculed in custody after state authorities took over the Salmaniya Medical Complex, claiming its mostly Shiite staff who have treated injured protesters were opposition sympathizers. At least 35 people have been killed in violence related to the uprising, including several security forces.

Bahraini authorities counter that opposition claims are exaggerated and they could not allow protesters to claim control of key areas of the capital, including the main financial district -- recently pointing to the actions of police in the United States to roust anti-Wall Street groups.

Although the numbers are small, Bahrain's conflict resonates from Tehran to Washington.

Report findings that are highly critical of the government could embolden protesters and force new policies from Western allies such as Washington, which has remained close to Bahrain's rulers because of strong strategic ties, including the base for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. A $53 million arms deal with Bahrain is on hold until the upcoming report is examined.

For Gulf leaders, led by powerful Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Bahrain is seen as a firewall to keep pro-reform protests from spreading further across the region. Gulf rulers have rallied behind the kingdom's embattled monarchy and sent in military reinforcements during the height of the crackdowns.

Bahrain also is viewed as a front-line fight against Iranian influence. The Sunni Arab monarchy and influential sheiks consider any significant gains by Bahrain's Shiites as a beachhead for Shiite powerhouse Iran.

Earlier this month, Bahraini authorities accused five people of links to a suspected terror cell connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, whose alleged targets included attacks on the Saudi Embassy and the causeway linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Although there had been no direct evidence of links between Bahrain's Shiites and Tehran, the claims underscore the intensity of the showdown.

The fissures in Bahrain are not new. For decades, Shiites have pushed for a greater voice in a country where they account for 70 percent of the 525,000 people but are generally blocked from top political and government posts.

The Arab Spring was the catalyst for the most sustained Shiite-led revolt. Protesters began occupying a square in the capital Manama in February -- just days after crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square celebrated the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Security forces later stormed Manama's Pearl Square, tore down the landmark three-pronged monument at its center and imposed martial law. Hundreds of activists, political leaders and Shiite professionals such as lawyers, doctors, nurses and athletes were jailed and tried on anti-state crimes behind closed doors in a special security court that was set up during emergency rule.

Three protesters have been sentenced to death and several prominent opposition leaders were sentenced to life in prison.

Bahrain's rulers have offered some concessions, including giving more powers to parliament and opening up a so-called "national dialogue" on reforms. But authorities have rebuffed a key protest demand for the monarchy to give up control of top government posts and share privileges.

As part of the attempts to quell protests, Bahrain in July approved an international commission to look into the protests and crackdowns.

The five-member panel's chairman, Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born professor of international criminal law and a former member of U.N. human rights panels, praised the kingdom for a historic decision.

It was unprecedented, Bassiouni said, for an Arab Muslim country that has gone through "a difficult time" to have an independent investigation "irrespective of where the chips might fall."

In a statement Monday, Bahrain said it expects the report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry will be critical.

"Regrettably, there have been instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees," the government said, adding that prosecutors have charged 20 members of the security forces for alleged abuse of protesters during the uprising.

It also signaled more punishment for the abuses, saying the 20 prosecutions that had been filed are "in no way the limit of the steps that will be taken."

International human rights community hailed the announcement as a "welcome admission," but urged Bahrain's rulers to do more to prevent further mistreatment of opposition supporters and hold those, who abused power during the Shiite-led uprising accountable.

"The Bahrain government is now admitting what the world has known for months," the U.S.-based Human Rights First organization said, but added "Tackling impunity means more than prosecuting low-ranking officers," the group said.

Over the past months, the international panel received more than 8,000 complaints, testimonies and documents. Its members have interviewed more than 5,000 witnesses and alleged victims of the unrest, including detainees, police personnel, doctors and journalists.

But opposition parties already have cried foul.

The main Shiite party, Al Wefaq, claimed the government's admission of excessive force was an effort to absolve "those responsible for the major violations and abuses" and shift blame to "junior security personnel."

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