U.N.: Bahrain must probe reported protester deaths

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is expected to receive a report on recommended changes to the state's law and security.

Story highlights

  • The U.N. calls on Bahrain to probe reports of protesters killed
  • Reforms have been enacted on security, education, and more, Bahrain says
  • Protests in 10 locations are planned for this Friday, an opposition member says
  • An independent commission criticized the authorities' response to unrest

The United Nations called on Bahrain on Tuesday to investigate reports of protesters and bystanders killed by security forces.

The announcement came as Bahrain's king announced progress in making reforms, and an opposition member said new protests are scheduled for Friday.

"We have been receiving worrying reports of the disproportionate use of force by Bahraini security forces, including the excessive use of tear gas, the use of bird shot pellets and rubber bullets," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

"The use of tear gas in particular has reportedly resulted in a number of deaths of protestors and bystanders -- and that number has reportedly risen in recent months," he said. "Reliable sources indicate that the civilians who died from tear gas suffered complications from gas inhalation, and that security forces have been firing metal tear gas canisters from grenade launchers into crowds."

The statement also expressed concern about "the health of human rights defenders who are on hunger strike in protest against their imprisonment for participating in last year's mass demonstrations."

It came shortly after King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said he welcomes changes made in the country since a critical report was released in November about his nation's crackdown on protesters.

"The government carefully studied the recommendations and received leading international legal, policing, media and other experts, to advise decision-makers on the most appropriate way for Bahrain to implement the structural and legislative reforms necessary," Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority said. "The king welcomed the 'significant and broad progress' that has been made."

Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry issued the report that was highly critical of the authorities' reaction to the protests, which began in February 2011, spurred by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The demonstrations failed to gain the traction of other Arab Spring uprisings following a crackdown by the authorities in the island state, backed by troops from nearby Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The independent commission, set up by the king, concluded that the police had used excessive force and torture in their response to the protests in Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority country.

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Abuse of detainees in the crackdown included beatings with metal pipes and batons, and threats of rape and electrocution, according to Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, the commission chairman.

The mistreatment included physical and psychological torture, intended to extract information or to punish those held by security forces, he said.

The report recommended reforms to the country's law and better training of its security forces, as well as other measures.

On Tuesday, the national commission responsible for following up on those recommendations handed its final report to the king.

"The government has sought to put in place long lasting, internationally recognized systems to ensure that the implementation complies not just with the letter of the recommendations, but also with the spirit," a report on state-run Bahrain News Agency said. "The implementation of the recommendations contributes to Bahrain's goal of being an inclusive, fair and transparent state, committed to the practical realization of the universal application of human rights for all of its citizens and residents."

The report said the government has reformed police and security operations to ensure human rights are upheld. It also lists judicial reforms and new efforts to teach Bahrainis "the values of tolerance, acceptance and dialogue in a way that will contribute to the lasting stability of Bahrain."

Despite the statements, serious problems remain, said Jasim Husain, a member of the opposition Wefaq Party and former lawmaker.

"There is some improvement here and there, it's true. Official media has been less hostile. But still it's not over. There's no equal opportunity in the media, one side is represented. They ignore Shia cultural activities in the country and recognize Sunni culture only," he said.

On Friday, the opposition plans rallies at 10 locations, Husain said. The theme is that "people's dignity must be respected," and that Bahrain must be democratic, he said.

Some people who lost their jobs for participating in protests remain without work, and high-profile detainees have not been released, Husain said.

Many people are looking to the leaders and the opposition to press for change through peaceful means "and we should not miss this opportunity," he said. "We don't have the luxury of delaying farther."

Demonstrators and Bahraini authorities have continued to clash in recent months, with the opposition accusing the government of using heavy handed tactics.

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