Bahrain Responds To Criticism Of Reform Efforts
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
One week ago, the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain came under sharp critique in a 500-page report on human rights abuses committed during this year's pro-democracy uprising. The report was commissioned by the Bahraini government itself. It details a litany of human rights abuses endured by protesters, including systematic torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.
The report was applauded by the U.S. State Department. But yesterday on the program, a leading Bahraini human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, was skeptical.
NABEEL RAJAB: People are still in jail. People are still being tortured. Excessive use of force going on against protestor till this moment, and those responsible for all those violation are still in their job committing the same crimes.
BLOCK: Well, we've invited the government of Bahrain to respond. And today, we're joined by Abdulaziz bin Mubarek Al-Khalifa. He's a spokesman for the Bahraini government.
Welcome to the program.
ABDULAZIZ BIN MUBAREK AL-KHALIFA: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: The commission that we mentioned documented five cases of prisoners who died as a result of torture. And we just heard the activists there alleging that protesters are still in jail, still being tortured. Is that true? Is that the case?
AL-KHALIFA: Absolutely not. I think the results of the report made it very difficult for us to listen to, but it confirmed our fears. And what we want to do is to learn from these mistakes. There are lessons to be learned and we accept this as a report in its fullest form. And we are committed to reform.
BLOCK: When you talk about lessons to be learned from this report, one of the recommendations from the commission was that the top officials responsible for allowing the abuses would be held accountable, would be replaced. That hasn't happened yet. Why not and will it in the future?
AL-KHALIFA: Well, we already started to implement a couple of the points that they did mention in the report before the report actually even came out. So, we saw 20 security officers from different ranks prosecuted because they were responsible for the deaths that took place tragically in custody. So it's an ongoing process. There is more investigations to be made and we look forward to holding the people responsible for these tragic events responsible. So we're working on them.
BLOCK: One person who was removed from his post this week was the security chief. who oversaw the crackdown on protesters. But he was then given a new top-level job that's seen not as a punishment, but actually as a promotion. He, like yourself, comes from the ruling Al-Khalifa family. And many claim that that family name shields many people from the punishment that they deserve.
AL-KHALIFA: No, it doesn't shield anybody and no one is above the law. And, as you quite rightly said, this person was relieved and I don't see it as a promotion at all. I mean, he just doesn't have the responsibility of continuing in his position. And his successor actually is somebody not from the ruling family. And so, it - there is no set term or any kind of obligation that these senior positions, whether it's in security or any other responsibility, has to do with the family name.
BLOCK: Mr. Al-Khalifa, on the same day that this human rights report was issued, our correspondent in Bahrain, Kelly McEvers, was in the town of A'ali and she was there when riot police attacked a group of unarmed civilians, actually fired tear gas into their home. I want to play the tape of what that sounded like.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TAPE)
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: That's right here, outside our door. Okay, now we're hiding.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, my God.
MCEVERS: They're shooting in the house.
BLOCK: Mr. Khalifa, why is that still happening in your country? Our correspondent, Kelly McEvers, was there with the people who were being tear-gassed inside their home. She said the canisters being fired at such close range that they were ripping holes into the walls of the house. They were old women and children in this house with our reporter.
AL-KHALIFA: Well, like I said from the beginning, there are lessons to be learned. And as the number of personnel need training, we've begun to do that. I think about 400 members of the police force have started to be retrained. We're going to take training from the top people and the best experts from around the world.
So I do think that this is going to be a new chapter in the way that security is going to be managed. And I'm sure that we're going to learn from all the mistakes that took place in the past. And I'm sure we're going to be living in a better Bahrain in the future.
BLOCK: Mr. Al-Khalifa, thank you for your time.
AL-KHALIFA: Thank you, ma'am.
BLOCK: That's Bahraini government spokesman Abdulaziz bin Mubarek Al-Khalifa. He spoke with us from Manama.
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