DOHA, Qatar — The Bahraini government has made substantial progress since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011, but there’s still more work to be done.
That was the observation of Cherif Bassiouni, who headed the BICI, and told Al-Monitor during an exclusive interview at the Brookings Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, “The government has consistently carried out the implementation of the recommendations.”
Bassiouni highlighted the points where actions by the Bahraini government deserved recognition, but said the implementation of the recommendations were being made on a “piecemeal level,” and thus are losing its “cumulative impact.”
While authorities have improved in certain aspects, such as rebuilding some Shiite mosques that were destroyed during the uprising, the implementation of other key recommendations “leaves much to be desired.”
Cases of torture and deaths under torture “have not been adequately investigated, they have not been adequately prosecuted. The two prosecutions and the one conviction that came about were very very meager and very modest. That leaves a great deal to be desired.”
Bassiouni pointed to the social and economic factors fueling discontent among disenfranchised Shiite youth in the kingdom as one of the main driving forces behind continued acts of violence.
“There are very very fundamental social and economic issues involved in the Shiite population that need to be addressed, and have not been addressed. … The level of education and other public services within these communities are not adequate enough,” he said.
“When you have people who do not have the hope of seeing themselves as equal citizens, as having equal opportunities in a particular country, living in mostly economic underprivileged areas in high-density population areas, they explode,” he said, warning that the upheaval is “bound to continue to increase unless we address the social and economic reasons.”
Bassiouni was not of the belief that Iran was behind the recent acts of violence, despite accusations to the contrary.
“My guess is that if Iran wanted to be behind something like that, there would be much much more damage then there is now,” he said.
“If you have Iranian involvement, it would certainly not be at that very low level of things.”
Al-Monitor: How do you assess Bahrain’s progress in implementing the reforms recommended in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which you chaired in 2011? In which areas have there been the most progress, and where have been the least? Is Bahrain where you thought, or hoped it would be, almost three years after the report?
Bassiouni: There have been a number of recommendations made, and the government has consistently carried out the implementation of the recommendations. What critics see is that these recommendations have been implemented on a piecemeal basis, so that its cumulative impact is not felt when you take something on a piecemeal level. You can say yes it was done, but it loses the cumulative impact when you dilute it over a longer period of time and when you don’t connect them with one another.
The whole, if you will, purpose of having recommendations that are designed to eliminate the causes of social comfort is that you’re trying to bring about a sense of recognition for a group in a given society that their rights are being observed and respected. And therefore, it is the cumulative effect of that group that has to be examined as a way to assessing the impact as opposed to saying in a bureaucratic way, yes it’s true we have implemented the recommendation that says that some destroyed mosques have to be rebuilt and we’re rebuilding the mosques, yes that’s true. There are things that have been done that deserve recognition. For example, the students who were kicked out of universities or denied scholarships have all been reinstituted except for 12 of them. That is something that deserves credit and recognition. A large number of people that have been dismissed from their jobs have been rehired. Although, some of the people who have been rehired are claiming discrimination in the way in which they are placed in their new positions. But still, it deserves some credit. But it also deserves follow-up to be able to say, alright the purpose of me reinstating you is not the formality of reinstating you, I’m reinstating you because I want to reintegrate you in society, in the group in which you’re working. If I’m reinstating you because you can get a pay at the end of the month, and you’re still feeling marginalized, then I haven’t accomplished much.
The next question really arises with respect to some very important recommendations, the implementation of which leaves much to be desired. The accountability mechanism leaves much to be desired. We’re dealing with about 300 cases of torture, we were dealing with then-known deaths under torture, at least 5 cases that were completely documented. These cases have not been adequately investigated, they have not been adequately prosecuted. The two prosecutions and the one conviction that came about were very very meager and very modest. That leaves a great deal to be desired.
On the other hand, I have to say that the minister of interior in particular has really taken to heart the recommendations. The Ministry of Interior has established an ombudsman, a police professional practices office and the chief of police has been changed. There have been numerous improvements, and the credit really has to go to the minister himself for having done that.
Within the judiciary, you have to realize that the prosecutor is acting independently, the judiciary is acting independently and the minister of justice is acting independently. So it’s difficult to say who is moving fast enough and effectively enough. Certainly you can’t blame the minister of justice, because the minister of justice has no say over the prosecutor or the judges. I think in the prosecution’s office, there’s something to be said about the prosecutors not doing enough investigation, not having the resources to do the investigation. And I think there is also a question of public credibility that the prosecutor’s office does not have good credibility with the victims of the crimes. They frequently report back that they do not get the cooperation of the victims, but they don’t have the cooperation of the victims because the victims feel that they’re intent on doing the job. So why am I going to cooperate with you, when it doesn’t appear that you’re going to be doing your job? And I look at the record, and the record doesn’t indicate that you’re doing your job. It’s a chicken or an egg situation that needs to be examined.
Al-Monitor: Bahrain is proud of its reforms in the security sector and initiatives to bring greater transparency and accountability to its practices. Has the government’s implementation of your recommendations counteracted the "culture of impunity" among security officials you described in the BICI report?
Bassiouni: There’s no doubt that there’s substantial progress that’s been made. It’s always the story of whether the glass is half empty or half full. In comparison to what existed, significant progress has been made. In comparison to what can be done, of course there’s still room to go. And I hate to make those comparisons, but people should watch what has been happening in Egypt since particularly July 4, 2013, when the military took over. The amount of repression that took place and has been taking place in Egypt both by the police and security apparatus in general, by the prosecutor’s office and the judges, is appalling. In comparison, you have to say that the Bahrain system is much more advanced and has made much greater progress. Can it do more? The answer is absolutely yes. The point that needs to be reinforced more is that the prosecutor’s office, the training of prosecutors, the specialization of prosecutors, giving them more independence, giving them independent resources because they need to have independent investigators, they don’t have independent investigators. They cannot depend on the police to do the investigation, that needs to be done and can be done.
Al-Monitor: Bahrain this week defended itself against criticisms made by European countries at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva about its human rights record, saying the kingdom is making sincere efforts at meeting its human rights commitments. How do you assess Bahrain’s human rights record, and its follow-up on the BICI recommendations in this area?
Bassiouni: There’s no doubt in my mind that the king and the crown prince, a number of people in government, like the Ministry of Interior, are committed to making progress. There is opposition. Progress is also linked to a number of political issues; some of these political issues have to deal with the redistricting of legislative elections that are due to come up soon, and the need to recognize the political, social and economic rights of the Shiite population. This is not only a question of investigating violations and things like that, there are very very fundamental social and economic issues involved in the Shiite population that need to be addressed, and have not been addressed.
Nobody knows for certain what the percentage of the Shiite population is. It could very well be more than 60%. So the question then becomes: Is there an adequate proportional representation of that group in the legislative process? How is that group proportionately situated in terms of economic wealth? If you look at the social demographics of the country that the Shiite populations live in cities, substantially limited geographically without the possibility of expanding because they cannot have access to the surrounding land that is owned either by wealthy people or the government. As a result, you have high-density populations living there. The level of education and other public services within these communities are not adequate enough. There are means to break from that. One of the examples I use is the desegregation in the United States after the 1950s of schools by using busing. It’s very important to use busing to integrate future generations of Shiites and Sunnis, so that differences can be mitigated and limited, and so that people become Bahraini citizens as opposed to being a Sunni or a Shiite, and believe in a nation that they can cooperate with together. That needs to be worked on and this area has not been addressed.
Al-Monitor: There has been an increased string of car bombings and continued violence in Bahrain. Is this the result, in your view, of the failure of the political process, the radicalization of some opposition groups inside the country or the intervention of outside parties?
Bassiouni: Without having facts, it’s difficult to speculate as to whether outside parties, and in this case people, are referring to Iran, is agitating or not. There is a popular logic to the fact that yes Iran has an interest in agitating, yes Iran has an interest in destabilizing the Gulf countries and has imperial objectives in the Gulf and the Arab world. I think one would be naive not to think that Iran does not have geopolitical objectives in the region to fulfill. Whether or not it is fulfilling them is a matter of fact; that at least I don’t know, so I can’t speculate on them, but I can see the plausibility of it.
What people don’t realize is that the majority of the Shiite population, because of the increase in population, is mostly young people. And those younger people are very frustrated. You can see it not only in Bahrain, but in other countries in the world. When you have people who do not have the hope of seeing themselves as equal citizens, as having equal opportunities in a particular country, living in mostly economic underprivileged areas in high-density population areas, they explode. This is a very very normal sociological phenomenon. It’s not Bahrain only, it happens everywhere in the world. Because Bahrain is a small country, it’s going to be felt much more, but it’s bound to continue to increase unless we address the social and economic reasons.
Al-Monitor: The BICI rejected allegations of Iranian instigation of the protests and related violence in Bahrain. Do you believe that Iran is still not playing a role in the agitation in Bahrain?
Bassiouni: We did not reject it, we simply said we do not have any evidence of it. I asked the head of intelligence and other government agencies if they had any evidence to give us, and they didn’t. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I’m saying we weren’t supplied the evidence. So we could not reach that conclusion. I’m not in a position now to know any of the facts to reach a similar conclusion. Though this is purely speculation, on the part of anybody, as to whether that’s the case, this speculation cuts both ways. If the speculation is that Iran is behind this, as a lot of people say, my guess is that if Iran wanted to be behind something like that, there would be much much more damage then there is now. The disturbances that occur, the acts of violence that occur are so limited that you really can’t say that this is on a wide-scale basis. If you have Iranian involvement, it would certainly not be at that very low level of things. Whether Iran could activate it one day, and make it much bigger, yes of course the possibility is there.
Al-Monitor: Where do you see the reconciliation process, and national dialogue at this stage? Are you pleased with the government’s commitment? How do you assess the commitment of Al-Wefaq and other opposition elements?
Bassiouni: The only thing I can tell you is that I know the crown prince is very committed to it. I’ve always admired him for his heart being in the right place, and him wanting to do things. What goes on inside the room is something I’m not privy to, so I don't know what was offered, what was not offered and what was rejected. Obviously, there haven’t been any results. When we look at the result, the result is not there. Why the result isn’t there is something that needs to be explored.
It hasn’t produced much, so I’m not sure if it’s on the right track.