(Updates with Clinton comment in sixth paragraph. See EXTRA and MET for more on Middle East unrest.)
Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Bahrain used “excessive force” as it halted protests led by the Shiite Muslim majority in February and March, a state-appointed investigation said today.
“There were instances where government forces were ordered to restrain forcefully the crowd or to remove the crowd, and in these situations excessive force was used,” the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry said in a report published on its Web site. “Five persons died as a result of torture.”
Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, set up the commission to look into allegations of human-rights abuses after his government crushed protests in March, leaving 35 people dead.
The demonstrations called for more democracy and civil rights, inspired by the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. The commission reported no evidence to substantiate the claims by Bahraini authorities that Shiite-led Iran was involved in the uprising.
King Hamad said at a press conference today that a team will be set up to study the report and officials will be held accountable for their actions.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the release of the report and urged the island’s rulers to address “long-standing grievances” of the people. “We are deeply concerned about the abuses identified in the report, and urge the government and all elements of Bahraini society to address them in a prompt and systematic manner,” Clinton said in a statement.
U.S. Navy Base
Bahrain, a U.S. ally, is headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The street battles between police and demonstrators hurt tourism and curbed economic growth this year. The unrest cost Bahrain about $2 billion in output, Essam Fakhro, chairman of Bahrain’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in September.
“The report, which basically says the government overreacted and used excessive force, only states the obvious,” Augustus Richard Norton, professor of International Relations and Anthropology at Boston University, said in a phone interview. “It only reflects the international pressure that the king and his entourage have been under, including the loss of commercial and banking activity. It doesn’t change very much.”
The government said in an e-mailed statement today that there will be “no impunity” for those found to have used excessive force.’’ It said 20 police officers are already being prosecuted.
Shiites represent about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, according to the U.S. State Department, while its hereditary rulers are Sunni. Shiites say they face discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas. Troops from Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia entered the country in March to help restore order.
The commission said on Sept. 26 that it had conducted 5,549 interviews and received 8,818 complaints. The five-member panel was headed by Cherif Bassiouni, a professor emeritus at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago.
“There should be a standing independent body to examine all complaints of torture, mistreatment, excessive use of force or other abuses,” it said in the report. “The families of the victims should be entitled to compensation that is commensurate with the gravity of their loss.”
U.S. Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that political reform in Bahrain won’t come easily, “but it is critical for the healing process.”
“What’s important now will be accountability for the grave human rights abuses that have occurred, irreversible reforms, and enforcement,” Kerry said.
Bahraini authorities detained hundreds of people, including doctors who treated wounded protesters and activists during the crackdown. Six opposition leaders, including Hassan Mushaima, a leader of the Shiite Haq movement, and Ebrahim Sharif, head of the opposition National Democratic Action Society, were jailed.
Central Bank Governor Rasheed al-Maraj said today that Bahrain’s economy expanded in the second and third quarters of this year. Growth may be about 2 percent for the year, compared with an earlier forecast of 5 percent, Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Board, said on Oct. 23.
“The service sector and real estate have been hurt the hardest,” Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank, said in an interview today. “Growth is dependent on oil revenue and government spending. Retail banks aren’t lending, which highlights the fact that there is uncertainty.”
The country’s benchmark stock index has declined 19 percent this year. The cost of insuring Bahrain’s debt through credit- default swaps reached a high of 410.55 on Oct. 5, according to CMA prices.
Bahrain has been shaken by sectarian disputes in the past, especially in the 1990s. At the height of this year’s protests, the government declared three-month state of emergency after a force of GCC troops, mostly Saudi, arrived in March to help quell the Shiite uprising.
Bahrain and Saudi authorities have blamed Shiite-led Iran for fomenting unrest. King Hamad said today that Iran’s “flagrant intervention” was unacceptable.
Iran has denied involvement in the protests, and Bassiouni said at a press conference today that the commission found no evidence of Iranian involvement.
Four officers from Bahrain’s police force were killed during the protests and 846 were injured, the Bahrain News Agency said on Nov. 21, citing a Cabinet report.
In recent weeks, skirmishes between security forces and demonstrators have broken out again across the country.
Protesters clashed with security forces in several towns today before the report’s release.
“The grievances continue,” Boston University’s Norton said. “They are very real and significant grievances. You only have to drive from Manama to Sitra, the largest Shiite city, to see the extraordinary disparity in living conditions.”
--With assistance from Mourad Haroutunian in Riyadh and Nicole Gaouette in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Terry Atlas
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