Bahrain Sets Up Panel To Investigate Unrest

Clarification Aug. 3, 2011

After a further conversation with Cherif Bassiouni, we changed language in the Web version of the story that characterizes Bassiouni's assessment of the situation in Bahrain. Initially, we said, "In an interview, he seemed underwhelmed by the scale of Bahrain's crackdown, compared with the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, for example." A more accurate characterization is "In an interview, he said the scale of Bahrain's crackdown was 'manageable,' compared with the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, for example." The archived audio does not reflect these changes.

Bahrain's government has appointed Cherif Bassiouni to lead an inquiry into events surrounding the protests in February and March, and the crackdown that ensued. i i

hide captionBahrain's government has appointed Cherif Bassiouni to lead an inquiry into events surrounding the protests in February and March, and the crackdown that ensued.

Hasan Jamali/AP
Bahrain's government has appointed Cherif Bassiouni to lead an inquiry into events surrounding the protests in February and March, and the crackdown that ensued.

Bahrain's government has appointed Cherif Bassiouni to lead an inquiry into events surrounding the protests in February and March, and the crackdown that ensued.

Hasan Jamali/AP

The government of Bahrain has invited a renowned international legal scholar to investigate what went on during mass protests in February and March, and the brutal crackdown on the largely Shiite opposition that ensued. More than 30 people died, hundreds were detained and beaten, and thousands were fired from their jobs.

The commission is headed by Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born legal expert who has investigated war crimes and human rights violations in the Balkans, Rwanda, Afghanistan and, most recently, Libya.

Bassiouni and a team of international investigators are taking testimony from both the government and the opposition. The commission will then issue a report and recommendations to Bahrain's king.

Bassiouni says unlike the 9/11 Commission, which was made up of former politicians, or a U.N. commission that investigates a country whether the ruler likes it or not, the Bahrain commission is different.

"This is a first of its kind in the world," he says. "That is, for a government to appoint a commission of inquiry but to select the composition of the committee from international personalities and to give it total independence."

'A Structural Issue'

Still, the commission is paid by the government of Bahrain. And Bassiouni's media schedule is carefully managed by a former government employee.

Already some Bahrainis say they worry Bassiouni might be too close to the government. In an interview, he said the scale of Bahrain's crackdown was "manageable," compared with the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, for example.

Tents burn on March 16 as Bahraini security troops raid the site of a pro-democracy sit-in at Pearl Square, in the capital, Manama. i i

hide captionTents burn on March 16 as Bahraini security troops raid the site of a pro-democracy sit-in at Pearl Square, in the capital, Manama.

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Tents burn on March 16 as Bahraini security troops raid the site of a pro-democracy sit-in at Pearl Square, in the capital, Manama.

Tents burn on March 16 as Bahraini security troops raid the site of a pro-democracy sit-in at Pearl Square, in the capital, Manama.

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

He recounted one story of a Bahraini opposition figure who was detained.

"He said, 'They kept repeatedly hitting me, one officer, with the palm of his hand to the back of the head and the back of my neck.' And I said, 'Did it leave any marks?' 'No.' 'Did it cause you any headaches?' 'No,'" he says. "You know, I fully recognize that this is demeaning, it's improper, it's physical abuse. But this is not like somebody who is engaging in the type of torture that causes severe physical pain."

Still, Bassiouni says, if members of Bahrain's security forces are found to have committed torture, he will recommend they be prosecuted. What he says he can't control is whether these recommendations are heeded or whether those who ordered the torture will ever be known.

He says he hopes the commission will at least serve as a public record — a kind of South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission on paper — that might one day help the disenfranchised Shiite majority of Bahrain reconcile with the country's Sunni leadership.

At a press conference in Bahrain's capital, Manama, Khalil al-Marzooq, a leader of the country's main Shiite opposition group, said by focusing on individual cases of abuse, Bassiouni's commission won't get at the larger problems.

"It means more than somebody fired you. It means more than a policeman beat you in the street. It's more than a policeman tortured you in custody," he says. "It's a structural issue.

A structural issue, Marzooq says, that can be fixed only by reforming the political system, not by inviting international legal scholars to clean up Bahrain's image.

Retaliation Fears

A poem Ayat al-Gormezi read during the protests back in March likens Bahrain's prime minister to a rat, and says he deserves the same fate as Saddam Hussein, who was hanged.

Gormezi was captured and sent to jail for three and a half months for reading her poems. She says she was beaten so badly she regularly passed out.

Gormezi says she will tell the Bassiouni commission what happened to her, even though she's afraid the government will try to use it against her someday down the road.

"I do believe it's my obligation," she says, "even though I doubt it will do much good."

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