Last updated: 17 April, 2012

Amnesty questions Bahrain reforms as F1 concerns deepen

Amnesty International said Tuesday that Bahrain had failed to deliver on promises of political reform after a deadly crackdown last year, as controversy mounted over the kingdom’s hosting of the Formula One Grand Prix next weekend.

In a 58-page report released just days before the Gulf kingdom is due to host the prestigious race, which was cancelled amid last year’s unrest, the London-based watchdog said authorities “have failed to provide justice for victims of human rights violations.”

“With the world’s eyes on Bahrain as it prepares to host the Grand Prix, no one should be under any illusions that the country’s human rights crisis is over,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“The authorities are trying to portray the country as being on the road to reform, but we continue to receive reports of torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protests,” Sahraoui said, adding that so far, “reforms have only scratched the surface.”

The report came just a day after a prominent international think-tank warned that Bahrain’s hosting of motor racing’s premier event was a “time bomb,” amid threats of new protests against the Sunni rulers of the Shiite-majority kingdom.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) cautioned that “beneath a facade of normalisation, Bahrain is sliding towards another dangerous eruption of violence,” and urged the government in Manama to heed calls for real reform.

King Hamad has promised change in line with the recommendations of an independent commission of inquiry into his government’s bloody crackdown in March last year against month-long Shiite-led pro-democracy protests.

The commission found that the security forces had used excessive force against unarmed protesters and tortured detainees in an operation that left 35 people dead, including five from torture.

According to Amnesty, “despite some institutional and other reforms, the government’s overall response has been inadequate.”

Specifically, Amnesty says “no senior member of the security forces has been held to account… and scores of prisoners have not been released.”

Protests in the kingdom have intensified in recent days in support of prominent Shiite activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike since the night of February 8-9.

On Monday, the ICG said Khawaja’s health was a second “time bomb” and warned that his death “would spark a serious intensification in anti-regime activism.”

Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison with other opposition activists over an alleged plot to topple the monarchy during last year’s protests.

Tensions in the island kingdom have been mounting in the run-up to Sunday’s Grand Prix as the main Shiite opposition bloc, Al-Wefaq, launches a week of protests.

The “Revolution of February 14” youth group, whose members have repeatedly clashed with security forces, have called for “three days of rage” from Friday through Sunday.

On Monday night, hundreds of protesters, calling for the overthrow of the ruling Khalifa dynasty, clashed with police in the Shiite village of Salmabad, witnesses said, adding that police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Activists were expected to demonstrate near Bahrain’s international airport later on Tuesday.

Amnesty accused security forces of continuing to “face protesters with unnecessary and excessive force… particularly tear gas,” which has resulted in “several deaths in recent months.”

In total, at least “60 people have been killed in connection with protests,” since February of last year, it added.

Amnesty also accused authorities of continuing to use “torture and ill-treatment in unofficial detention” centres.

The watchdog warned that nearly five months after the commission reported on its inquiry into last year’s violence, “real change has not materialised.”

“It is time for the Bahraini government to match its public pronouncements with genuine actions,” it said.