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Familiar refrain characterizes Posner’s remarks at Congressional hearing on Bahrain

Assistant Secretary of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) Michael Posner appeared as a witness at the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights hearing yesterday in Washington, DC.

In his remarks, Mr. Posner restated many of the points he has made on other occasions.  He diverged very little from the stance the State Department has taken almost from the beginning of the conflict in Bahrain.  He reiterated that the abuse of human rights in Bahrain is Bahrain’s problem to solve, praised the government’s progress toward reform, and affirmed the Administration’s partnership with the regime.  He also expressed concern about the trials and imprisonment of activists and medics, but stopped short of saying Nabeel Rajab should be released, when questioned on that point, seeming to suggest that the arrest and detention may be considered a legitimate action for some unexpressed reason.

Frustrating to this observer, Posner once again drew the  comparison between violent acts by protesters and the regime’s security forces.  It is misleading to compare a few isolated, but unfortunate, violent incidents by a small minority of protesters with the daily and systematic, full-scale assaults by the vastly more vicious and better-armed regime security forces, including unprovoked attacks on peaceful demonstrators and innocent bystanders.  There is no parity here in force or impact, nor is there any evidence of parity, yet Posner continues to call on both sides to exercise restraint with equal emphasis.

To add insult to injury, he stated that the same government that tortured its citizens, imprisoned activists, and prosecuted its doctors showed “courage” in owning up to its offenses to the world in the face of undeniable proof.

Courage is not a term that most people of conscience equate with the government of Bahrain these days.

Notably absent from his remarks were any comments on the use of tear gas, bird shot pellets, and rubber bullets, nor did he make any reference to the children and adults who had been maimed or killed by security forces and the deplorable prison conditions suffered by the unjustly imprisoned political activists.

Few were surprised when Representative Dan Burton expressed satisfaction with Mr. Posner’s remarks at the conclusion of his testimony.

The text of his testimony, plus video link, is below.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing and for your sustained concern about Bahrain and the current challenges there. I appreciate the opportunity to appear here today to outline the administration’s views with respect to Bahrain.

Context: Bahrain is an important strategic partner at a crossroads

We all recognize Bahrain’s importance as a longtime partner of the United States in the Gulf region. For more than 60 years, the United States military has worked closely with its Bahraini counterparts. The Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the country serves as a pillar of our regional security strategy in the Gulf region. The U.S. – Bahrain relationship is particularly important in the face of rising threats from Iran.

Our longstanding alliance with Bahrain is based on shared political, economic, and security interests. And it is in part because of this important strategic relationship that we have devoted so much attention to Bahrain in the last 18 months. The demonstrations and violent confrontations that shook Bahrain last February and March were traumatic to all segments of Bahraini society. And although the violence has diminished significantly in recent months, Bahrain is still a deeply divided nation struggling to regain its equilibrium.

As partners and friends who care deeply about Bahrain’s future, we must be straightforward in our assessments. This is not a time for complacency or wishful thinking. It is a time for the United States and others to work with the government and the political opposition and to urge a new approach to dialogue, about which I will say more in a moment.

It is in this challenging political context that I have traveled to Bahrain five times in the last 18 months, most recently in June, each time meeting with senior government officials, lawyers, journalists, medical professionals, civil society groups, human rights advocates, and several political societies. This visit, my meetings focused on 1) the current situation for human rights in Bahrain following the unrest in February and March of last year, 2) the need for inclusive dialogue and negotiation, and 3) implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report.

The current situation for human rights in Bahrain

In a number of ways, Bahrain today is more stable than it was a year ago. Last year, the government showed courage in inviting Cherif Bassiouni to initiate the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The BICI process was unprecedented both in its scope and the unfettered access the BICI team were granted. King Hamad deserves great credit for initiating this commission and for allowing an independent body to take a critical look at Bahrain’s human rights record and to report so extensively on its findings. We also commend the King for accepting and committing to implement the recommendations of the BICI report. And after a worrying period of rising violence in the streets by both demonstrators and police, violence has subsided this summer.

Despite these positive accomplishments, my recent visit revealed deep divisions within Bahraini society and between many Bahrainis and their government. Almost nightly confrontations, including a number that end in violence between young protestors and the police, and the recent discovery of sophisticated bomb-making materials in Salmabad and Hamad Town punctuate the need for urgent action to heal the divisions in society and bring peace and prosperity to all of its people.

We are concerned that more than a year after the release of the BICI report, we see reports of continuing reprisals against Bahraini citizens who attempt to exercise their universal rights to free expression and assembly. For example, on March 31, 2012, Ahmed Ismail Hassan, a 22-year-old videographer, was shot and killed while filming a pro-reform demonstration. This is one incident in a pattern of reports of activists and demonstrators being injured and mistreated in interactions with the police.

Moreover, permits for organized demonstrations are often denied. Over the past month, Bahrain has stopped granting permits for organized demonstrations in central Manama, and has announced a study to identify suitable locations for protests away from the downtown area. While the study may be a useful opportunity to initiate constructive dialogue, including with the opposition, it must not be used as a mechanism to restrict the universal right to peaceful protest. At the same time, we urge Wifaq and others who organize demonstrations to do their utmost to ensure that those gatherings remain peaceful.

Urgent need for dialogue

Since February and March 2011 there have been numerous calls – including by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and members of the international community – for broad political dialogue that will lead to a way forward on political reform.

While dialogue and negotiation can only occur among Bahrainis themselves, as a friend and partner of Bahrain, the United States has encouraged dialogue in a variety of different forms over the last 18 months. But despite numerous attempts, attempts at dialogue have broken down. There is little evidence that Bahrain is moving toward a negotiated political agreement on issues such as the powers of parliament and electoral districting.

On my recent visit, I observed that both people in the government and the political opposition felt that time is on their side. This is a misguided and dangerous perception. Bahrain needs dialogue and negotiation to build a strong national consensus about its political future, strengthen its economic standing, and make it a more prosperous country and a more stable ally of the United States. We are pursuing a two-track strategy to reinforce those elements within Bahraini society that are working to promote meaningful dialogue and negotiation.

On the first track, we continue to encourage the government, all political organizations, and civil society to come to the table for a broad, open negotiation about the political future of the country. The current stalemate requires bold leadership from all sides – people who are ready to negotiate now, without preconditions, and to trust the other sides to come to the table in a spirit of investment in Bahrain’s political, economic, and social future. As we have said, the country’s political future is a matter for Bahrainis to negotiate themselves. But as the government did with the BICI process, there is room to invite technical facilitation of Bahraini-led dialogue.

On the second track, we also are encouraging the government to sit down with political and civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens, to try to make progress on issues that matter to people’s everyday lives, such as safety, health, education, labor, and policing.

One positive example of this kind of engagement is the Tripartite Committee’s work with the International Labor Organization (ILO), Bahraini employers, the Bahrain Federation of Trade Unions, and the Ministry of Labor to resolve the longstanding issue of reinstatement of more than 2,000 dismissed workers. We are encouraged by the success of this effort, both in terms of a fair outcome for many of the dismissed workers and the process that led to this outcome. Working with the ILO, the different stakeholders negotiated with each other over the course of several weeks to agree on an inclusive approach for evaluating and making decisions about how to resolve the issue of dismissed workers. While there will no doubt be bumps in the road, there the partners developed a framework for making decisions that shared power among the different stakeholders.

The issue of public safety and policing practices is another area that we see as being ripe for this kind of dialogue and negotiation. We are encouraged by steps undertaken by the Ministry of Interior to initiate some institutional reforms that will make the police more accountable and professional. The change in leadership in the police under General Tariq al Hassan, a career police officer, also is an encouraging sign. We await the results of the announced plan to hire 500 new officers who represent all elements of Bahraini society. And we welcome the announcement earlier this week by the Minister of the Interior that his office will launch investigations of the human rights violations by police officers documented in the BICI report.

But it is not enough for the government to dictate solutions to problems with policing amidst ongoing reports of the abuse of tear gas, birdshot, and other disproportionate mechanisms to control crowds and silence peaceful protestors. While we have consistently condemned the use of Molotov cocktails and other violent measures by some demonstrators, we also have been consistent in our criticism of the use of excessive force by some police.

What underlies the use of excessive force by police and the use of violent tactics by protestors is a fundamental lack of trust between the police and the people whom the police are meant to serve. Trust can only begin to be established through genuine dialogue between the police and the communities they serve. We encourage the government to take the lead in establishing a forum or a process – perhaps with outside technical facilitation – for discussion of public safety and policing practices.

One model we have discussed regularly with the government and others is the Patten Commission, which worked over the course of several years to redefine the mission and practices of police in Northern Ireland. For such a process to work, citizens, community and religious leaders, and civil society organizations must be willing to engage with the government and the police to begin rebuilding the trust that will lead to genuine stability and peace in Bahraini communities.

BICI implementation

The United States continues to encourage the Government of Bahrain to fulfill its commitment to fully implement the recommendations of the BICI report. We understand that full implementation will take time. We commend the government for the initial steps it took toward implementation, particularly in the period leading up to the release of the National Commission report in March 2012.

The Government of Bahrain has taken many important steps toward the long-term institutional reforms identified in the report, such as removing arrest authority from the national security agency, drafting legislation concerning the investigation and prosecution of torture, and drafting a code of conduct for police based on international best practices. The government also has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. It has begun to rebuild religious sites, and engaged a team of qualified experts to advise on policing and legal reforms. These are signs of the government’s commitment to address the underlying cause of last year’s violence.

The Government of Bahrain needs to take action on the full range of other BICI recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation. These include dropping charges against all persons accused of offenses involving peaceful political expression including freedom of assembly, prosecuting those officials responsible for the violations identified in the BICI report, and ensuring fair and expeditious trials in appeals cases. It also means continuing work to professionalize and diversify Bahrain’s security forces to reflect the communities which they serve.

First, there are several hundred pending criminal cases related to the events of February and March 2011. Many individuals have been in detention for over a year. The government continues to prosecute 20 political activists and appeals cases are ongoing in the prosecution of respected medical professionals. In addition to the ongoing cases against doctors and nurses, we are discouraged by the Court of Appeals’ decision to issue a gag-order banning the media from reporting on trials for the 20 high-profile activists. We urge the Government of Bahrain to ensure fair and expeditious trials in appeals cases and to drop charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression and freedom of assembly.

The United States was deeply disappointed that, despite assurances to the contrary, the government sought and received convictions in nine of 18 felony cases against medical professionals before the appellate court, with sentences ranging from one month to five years. While we are not privy to all of the facts, we have consistently urged the government to exercise prosecutorial discretion in these cases and to drop the charges in the interest of turning the page on the events of last year.

The prosecution of these cases is a sign of larger divisions within the health care system in Bahrain. I was alarmed to hear reports from all sides of Bahraini society during my recent visit about the tense environment for medical care in Bahrain. Young men often elect not to seek treatment in public clinics and hospitals when they are injured for fear of being turned in to the police by their doctors on allegations of participating in demonstrations. I also heard that Shi’a Bahrainis now only seek treatment from Shi’a doctors and Sunnis only seek treatment from Sunnis. And the ongoing felony cases against some of Bahrain’s most highly specialized doctors means the country is facing a shortage of talent in critical specialties. There is much work to be done to heal the divisions in the health care system and restore the reputation of Bahrain as a regional leader in medical services.

Second, we call on the Government of Bahrain to hold accountable those officials responsible for the violations described in the BICI report. At the beginning of the year, the government reported that 48 people from the security forces were being investigated for their roles in suppressing protests. So far only nine policemen – five Pakistani and one Yemeni national and three Bahrainis – are known to have been brought to trial for human rights violations. Very little information has been made public about how these investigations were conducted and their trials have been repeatedly adjourned and postponed.

Third, as discussed above, further efforts need to be made to enhance the professionalization of the police. Ongoing violence in the streets between police and protesters points to the need for professional, integrated police and security forces that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and that adopt a community policing approach.

Bahrain and the Arab Awakening

In conclusion, I want to say a word about Bahrain in the context of the Arab Awakening and the transitions occurring in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Many people wish to compare Bahrain to other countries in the region such as Tunisia or Egypt. While some comparisons may be valid, it also is very important to recognize the unique history and political and economic development in each of these countries, and to shape our policies accordingly. President Obama has said that stable, democratic societies make the best partners and allies. And so while there is no single path or timetable to forging a real democracy, there are a core set of underlying principles that, as Secretary Clinton recently noted “have to be enshrined not only in the constitution, not only in the institutions of government, but in the hearts and minds of the people.”

Our aim is to encourage all sides to come to the table so that meaningful dialogue and negotiation can get underway in a process that will begin to heal existing divisions within the society and set Bahrain on a course toward greater freedom and prosperity for all Bahrainis. As a partner and friend, the United States stands ready to support the government and the people of Bahrain as they seek pathways toward meaningful dialogue about the future of the country.

Report on today’s Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights Hearing

A hearing on the state of progress on the BICI recommendations for the Kingdom of Bahrain was held on Capitol Hill this afternoon by the Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights.  The last time the Commission met was 14 months ago.

Who Was There

Witnesses included co-chairs Representative Jim McGovern (D, MA) and Representative Dan Burton (R, IN) and Senator Ron Wyden (D, OR).  Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, was present to testify on behalf of the U.S. State Department and the Administration.

After a brief adjournment for a congressional vote, witnesses Matar Ebrahim Matar, former Member of Bahrain’s Parliament, Leslie Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa Programs, National Democratic Institute, Tom Malinowski, Washington Director, Human Rights Watch, and Richard Sollom, Deputy Director, Physicians for Human Rights prepared to give testimony, however, I had to leave so I did not personally hear their testimonies.

Representative James Moran (D, VA) and Representative Lynn Woolsey (D, CA) were present to provide their views and ask questions of the witnesses.

The room was completely filled to capacity – standing room only — with journalists, activists, legislators, and others.  In the audience, I recognized Bahraini journalist Nada al-Wadi, Cole Beckenfeld from POMED, and Bahrain Ambassador Houda Nonoo, among others.

Testimony and video will be available on the Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights website

Husain Abdulla of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) was not present but he entered testimony into the record and provided handouts, as did Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, and several others.  Representative McGovern also entered today’s New York Times article on excessive tear gas in Bahrain into the record.   Those submissions will be up on the Tom Lantos Commission website in a few days. A source at the meeting also told me that the video of the meeting will also be posted on the website within a few days.

What Was Said in the First Half of the Meeting

Representative McGovern stated views that were most sympathetic to the opposition.  He said he “firmly believed” U.S. arms sales and services to Bahrain should cease until significant reforms took place.  Among many improvements, he called for greater access to Bahrain for NGOs.  He was most disappointed that Nabeel Rajab had been imprisoned and called for all detainees who had not demonstrated violence to be released immediately.

Representative Burton’s views could not be more different.  He claimed that he knew the real story about Bahrain and cautioned the audience against putting too much stock in what he called “reports.”  Citing his visits to Bahrain and meetings with the Crown Prince, U.S. intelligence officers, and the Commander of the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy stationed in Bahrain, he said that Bahrain had made significant progress toward reforms and that 18 of the 26 BICI recommendations had been complied with.  He also alleged that there were people from Iran who were fomenting discord in Bahrain.  Noting that he saw a number of activists in the audience, Mr. Burton said, “I think it would be a tragic mistake to predetermine if the Bahrain government has complied with the recommendations.”

Representative Woolsey was next to speak.  She stated that she too had visited Bahrain but her impressions appeared very different.  She said “I came away from that trip with a greater sense of urgency than I expected.”  Problems she cited were the trial of the medics, the use of tear gas, and the use of rubber bullets.  She stated that she opposed arms sales until real reforms had taken place: “The Government of Bahrain has started to take steps but as a passionate human rights advocate, I expect there to be real, lasting, and meaningful reform.”  She also called for increased efforts by the Bahrain government.

Senator Wyden accused the government of Bahrain of “foot dragging” and cited human rights abuses, the targeting of children, the use of tear gas, and the imprisonment of Nabeel Rajab and other political activists, and the prohibition against peaceful protests and assembly as troubling practices that had to stop.

Deputy Secretary Posner‘s remarks focused on human rights, the need for dialogue, and increased progress on the BICI recommendations.  As Representative Wolf commented, his views were moderate but basically echoed what he has stated many times before at press briefings.  He called on both the opposition and the government to take steps toward dialogue and reiterated his previous comments that human rights was a problem for Bahrain to solve.

He did claim that the violence had abated somewhat “this summer” while “nightly confrontations” between young people and the police were still taking place.  When questioned about the freedom of the press in Bahrain by Representative Moran, Mr. Posner stated that Bahrainis had access to a number of news sources, including satellite television, and were not restricted to accessing only state-run media.

Representative Woolsey asked him to clarify what he meant when he said his department “encouraged” dialogue in Bahrain and by what means, and to this, he replied that the Administration simply reiterated its commitment to both the government of Bahrain and the people of Bahrain.  “We’ve made it clear that we have some concerns about human rights and the lack of progress toward dialogue,” stated Deputy Secretary Posner.

When asked about outside influences in Bahrain, such as Iran, Posner stated “What is clear to me is that there are issues in Bahrain that have nothing at all to do with anyone outside the country and what they’re doing.”

The meeting adjourned briefly for a vote called elsewhere.

I regret that I was unable to attend the rest of the meeting, but I will post a link to the video as soon as it appears on the Tom Lantos Commission website.

Congressional Hearing on BICI to take place Wednesday, August 1

Public Congressional hearing on Bahrain

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission will hold a hearing this Wednesday in Washington, DC to hear witnesses report on the extent to which the government of Bahrain has implemented the human rights protections recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in November 2011.

The hearing is open to the public and will take place in Room 2237 of the Rayburn House Office Building (second floor) on Wednesday, August 1, from 1 pm to 3 pm.

The Rayburn Office Building occupies a site southwest of the Capitol bounded by Independence Avenue, South Capitol Street, C Street S.W., and First Street S.W. (View map) in Washington, DC.

Witnesses will appear in three panels.

The witness for the first panel will be Ron Wyden, U.S. Senator for Oregon.  Senator Wyden was one of 24 senators and congressional representatives to oppose the sale of arms to Bahrain.

The witness for the second panel will be Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.  Mr. Posner has visited Bahrain five times in the past two years, the most recently on June 12 of this year, when he spoke to the press at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain.

Four witnesses will testify on the third and final panel.  They will be

Matar Ebrahim Matar, former member of Bahrain’s parliament and leading member of Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest political party in Bahrain.  Mr. Matar recently appeared on Al Jazeera’s television news program, The Stream (video link) to opine about the state of reforms in Bahrain.

Leslie Campbell, Senior Associate Director and Regional Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs, National Democratic Institute.  Headquartered in Washington, DC, the National Democratic Institute was formed by the U.S. government to foster movements toward democracy in foreign nations, and is funded both by taxpayers (through the State Department and other agencies) and by contributions from foreign governments (including, notably, the Kingdom of Bahrain) and donations from others.  The organization’s work in Bahrain has focused on encouraging citizen participation in elections.

Tom Walinowski, Director of Human Rights Watch.  Human Rights Watch is a New York-based nonprofit organization that has advocated for human rights in Bahrain.

Richard Sollom, Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights.  This organization has advocated for dismissal of charges against the Bahraini medics and has called for a cease of the indiscriminate and excessive use of tear gas in Bahrain, which has been linked to fatalities and miscarriages.  The nonprofit is based in Massachusetts.

Directions from Metro

From Union Station:

Start off going around Columbus Circle and joining 1st Street Northeast, going south. Take a left onto D Street, and shortly afterward a right onto 2nd Street Northeast.  Follow 2nd Street South until it becomes 2nd Street Southeast, then take a right onto C Street Southeast.  Follow C Street down the hill.  The Rayburn House Office Building will be the fourth large building on your right, at the bottom of the hill.

From Capitol South Station:

Start off walking north on 1st Street, and cross C Street. Take a left and walk down the hill, following C Street. The Rayburn House Office Building will be the third large building on your right, at the bottom of the hill.

From Federal Center Southwest Station:

Start off walking north on 3rd Street, and take a right at C Street.  Follow C Street to 2nd Street, then cross the road and the park. Stay on C Street across the roads, and you will see the Rayburn House Office Building on your left.

The Tom Lantos Commission is co-chaired by James P. McGovern and Frank R. Wolf.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner reiterates calls for accountability, restraint in Bahrain

United States Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael H. Posner, visited Bahrain last week.  In his comments to the press, he called for the government of Bahrain to prosecute those people responsible for atrocities, as identified in the BICI report, and to acquit all doctors and nurses from the Salmanyia Medical Complex who face charges.

He also called for diversifcation in Bahrain’s security forces — they are comprised of Sunni Bahrainis and foreign personnel, but not Shia Bahainis — and for increased training for the forces.  He also reinforced the need for restraint on the part of the security forces.

Repeatedly, however, he asserted that the situation in Bahrain is that country’s problem to solve, and that the United States would not dictate the terms of reconciliation.

Here are his comments (from June 14, 2012). The emphases are mine.

Good afternoon and thank you for coming today.  This is my fifth visit to Bahrain in the last 18 months.  I welcome the opportunity to be here to continue discussions of mutual interest and importance to Bahrain and the United States.  Bahrain remains an important partner, ally and friend of the United States.

During my visit, I have met with senior government officials, as well as lawyers, journalists, medical professionals, human rights advocates, and members of several political societies.  I have learned much about developments in Bahrain since my last visit in February of this year.   My discussions here have been productive, open, lively and reflective of the strong and longstanding relationship between the people and governments of our two countries.

My discussions with a broad cross-section of Bahrainis have focused primarily on the status of – and prospects for – a comprehensive political dialogue in Bahrain, as well as the process of implementing the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).  The Government of Bahrain has taken some important first steps in laying the foundation for dialogue and for reconciliation in Bahrain.  We are pleased, for instance, to see a great number of workers reinstated in their jobs, students back to school and that the ICRC has been able to gain access to prisons.  While the street violence has diminished to some degree, we continue to urge protestors to reject the use of Molotov cocktails and other violent attacks on police.  We also urge the police to refrain from the use of excessive force. It is noteworthy that the government has engaged with the ILO in the reinstatement of workers and is compensating the victims of last year’s unrest.  These measures signal a commitment to addressing some of the underlying causes of the unrest which is crucial to building trust in Bahrain.

However, much remains to be done.  The Government of Bahrain needs to take action on the full range of other BICI recommendations that we believe will help lay the foundation for longer-term reform and reconciliation. This includes prosecuting those officials responsible for the violations identified in the BICI report, dropping charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression including freedom of assembly, and ensuring fair and expeditious trials in appeals cases.  It also means continuing work to professionalize and diversify Bahrain’s security forces to reflect the communities which they serve.  Working to implement the recommendations of the BICI in an inclusive way will enhance trust and create the space for dialogue and negotiation.

Today, an appeals court in Bahrain upheld the convictions of nine medics and acquitted nine others associated with protests last year at the Salmaniya Medical Complex.  While sentences were reduced, we are deeply disappointed by these convictions, and that the Bahraini government did not use alternative means to address these cases. As we have said in the past, these convictions appear to be based, at least in part, on the defendants’ criticisms of government actions and policies.  The defendants are appealing these convictions to the Court of Cassation. We urge an expedited review of these convictions and that the medics be allowed to remain at home pending appeal. We hope that this review will result in a dismissal of criminal charges in the interest of turning the page on the events of last year and repairing the social fabric of Bahrain.

Above all, we continue to call on all parties in Bahrain to help each other move toward a comprehensive political dialogue that includes the diverse views of Bahraini society in a genuine negotiation.  Progress toward such a dialogue has slowed, polarization in Bahraini society has increased and the social fabric has frayed.  Dialogue has never been more urgent, as polarization in Bahrain society increases and the social fabric becomes more frayed.  It will take courage and leadership on all sides to bring Bahrainis of all backgrounds and views to the table.  We believe dialogue is needed on two tracks.  First, the government should continue to work with opposition political societies on negotiation of the political future of the country.  Secondly, there is a need for dialogue on issues of practical importance to all Bahrainis that enhances the sense of all people in Bahrain that they have a stake in the country’s future.  We call on the government and others in the society to seek creative and inclusive approaches to dialogue and negotiation.  This process will naturally take time.  As Bahrain’s friend and partner, the United States of America stands ready to support you.

QUESTION: The United States is putting pressure on Bahrain’s government to enter dialogue. Did you meet with Al Wefaq? What was your message to the Shia opposition?

ANSWER: We are continuing to do what we’ve done for the last year and a half which is to be a partner to both the government and the people of Bahrain. It is not for us, but for the people of Bahrain to find the path to reconciliation and dialogue. We continue to urge both the government and the various political societies, including Al Wefaq, to be active in that process and to take steps to make that process a success. And yes, we met with Al Wefaq today and we conveyed that message.

QUESTION: What was your message?

ANSWER: The message was to engage in the political process and negotiation and dialogue; to take the high road in terms of urging an end to violence on the street, and to be part of the coming together of this society and working with others across the society in negotiating the future.

QUESTION: You said the government needs to make a dialogue in two parts – did the government accept this? What did the government say?

ANSWER: Let’s separate two different things: What I said is the government and the various political societies need to find a way for a negotiation over political questions, and the government’s clear that they want to negotiate with the range of political societies. The second thing I said is that there are a number of areas where, on a parallel track, discussion, negotiation and dialogue can be a way to build confidence and greater trust – issues like the composition of the police, like health or housing. So there are issues related to the society and how it functions every day and the more there’s discussion of those issues, it helps set an environment where the political dialogue is more likely to succeed.

QUESTION: We are hearing a lot about the BICI, but not a lot is happening on the ground. We saw there was an official statement yesterday threatening civil society, saying they went beyond what is permitted. What will happen to the rest of the nine medics? Many of them were charged with occupying the hospital and storing weapons… Are you advising the government to drop the charges? And dropping charges for the misdemeanors? About the violence: There is a critical case of a 4 year old boy who was not protesting, he was with his father selling fish. What is the opinion of the State Department in the regard?

ANSWER: First question was on the status of the BICI recommendations. We had a range of discussions with people in the government about the status of those recommendations. The Minister of Justice has now assumed responsibility for next steps. There is a complimentary process in terms of acting on the recommendation of the Universal Periodic Review which echoed some of the same points. With the government, we discussed issues of accountability, and there are a number of cases now in the courts, other cases being investigated by a special investigative unit in the Attorney General’s office. Most of those cases haven’t been decided but that’s an area where there’s activity and it’s something we’ve been following closely.

The second are the range of cases still pending involving criminal charges, felonies and misdemeanors that occurred last February and March and again we had discussions with the government about the importance of resolving those cases and for those who have simply expressed views that are critical of government or assembled peacefully. Our view is that those charges should be dropped.

And third, we had discussions about the continuing process of reinstating workers dismissed last year. A number of people have been reinstated but some remain unresolved. We also discussed a broader recommendation of the BICI, which is the need to integrate the police and have the police force be more reflective of the society it serves.

With regard to the speeches and public comments of the last couple of days, I won’t comment specifically but I will say that we hope that the level of rhetoric and language be brought down so there can be an environment conducive to constructive, practical discussion. We discussed it with the government; we discussed it with the political societies. There’s a great deal of tension in the society a great deal of division and language can be a barrier if its inflammatory.

As for the doctors, I’ve said several things and I’m not going to say much more. We’ve said we’re deeply disappointed by the convictions. We said we believe that the decisions were based, in part, on the defendants’ criticisms of government actions and policies. And we said that we hope the appeals process will yield dismissal in the interest of turning the page on events of last year and repairing the social fabric. I’m not going to get into the details of the cases, but in the larger effort of bringing the society together, we hope that there can be an alternative way to address these cases.

In terms of acts of what you termed ‘harassment,’ our hope and expectation is that civil society groups will be allowed to operate freely, to be critical of the government when they deem it necessary. We had a very good meeting today with the Minister of Human Rights today about the role of civil society and the importance of groups being allowed to operate – we’ll continue to pursue that.

With respect to violence on the street, we continue to condemn both the violence by the protestors, often young kids hurling Molotov cocktails and other objects at the police; that’s unacceptable conduct. And we’ve also said and will say again that we’re concerned about the excessive use of force by police in some instances, included the excessive use of tear gas.

QUESTION: Please tell us what the prospects for dialogue are given the political climate? How can the opposition seize the opportunity?

ANSWER: I think this is a critical moment when there’s a pressing need for all of the parties to do all they can to engage in a dialogue and negotiation and do all they can to bring society together. There’s a degree of division here that is not good and this is a moment where, across the board, parties, whether the government or various societies need to redouble their efforts to be part of a constructive dialogue.

QUESTION: Al Wefaq, for a fact, has clearly said they won’t engage in dialogue unless the Manama Document and all the five opposition groups are brought to the table and BICI recommendations (inaudible)… The NUG also will not enter talks. These are top people from the Secretary General and senior people. This is the same as putting conditions. Both parties have said they condemn violence. What do you think of the political stalemate? Also, you met the Minister of Interior. Was the topic of accountability raised and what was the response?

ANSWER: In any negotiation or dialogue over differences parties say a range of things which make getting to the table more difficult. So our message, we met with the National Unity Gathering, we met with Wifaq, we met with Wa’ad, we met with a range of government ministries so our message to everybody is that it’s time to take a fresh look and think creatively about how to come to the table, begin the discussion and reach an outcome that benefits everyone in the society. The society, everybody in a society, stands to benefit if there is a successful dialogue that leads to a compromise that brings everybody into a common vision of the future. If you get bogged down on what one party said, you are not likely to move forward.

On the issue of accountability, we raised the issue in various ways with the Attorney General, the Justice Minister, as well as the Minister of the Interior, as well as the Minister for follow up on the royal court and our message is again, as I reflected in my opening comment, this is an important piece of the implementation of the BICI recommendations. It’s also an important piece for moving forward. There were a number of egregious cases, particularly those of individuals who died in custody, and it’s important that there is successful prosecutions in some of those cases ad we will follow them closely.

QUESTION: Inaudible.

ANSWER: As I said in my opening statement and I’ll say it again: we condemn the violence, we condemn it. With no qualifications it should stop now. As you say, it involves not only Molotov cocktails, but also various explosives, metal pellets being thrown at the police, the police are in a dangerous situation– violence should stop.

QUESTION: You said you’ve already spoken with Waad – what’s coming out as a concrete solution?

ANSWER: We raised these issues.

It’s critical that all parties here, all leaders, condemn violence and urge their supporters to stop engaging in violent acts. It’s also important, we talked to the Interior Minister about this and the Chief of Police, it’s important that the police use restraint. I’m not equating the two, but there needs to be a reduction of violence and confrontation.

QUESTION: Regarding the dialogue between the government and political parties – the government wants all to sit together but in the meantime, the opposition says they want to sit with the government but not others because it is the decision maker. But they are delaying… How do you see this?

ANSWER: I’m not going to comment on who said what but my view is that everyone, every party, the political parties and the government all bear some responsibility for engaging in a more active way going forward and looking for creative ways to establish a dialogue and negotiation that leads to results. We said the same things to everybody we talked to but at the end of the day it’s up to Bahrainis to find the path to the future.

QUESTION: Inaudible

ANSWER: As I said at the beginning, this is for Bahrainis to do. We’re a friend of the government and the people. We want to see this society succeed; it’s really important to us. So I’m here to talk to the government, talk to the various political societies and civil society to encourage what Bahrainis need going forward. We’re not going to set the terms, we’re not going to direct it. It’s really up to the people of Bahrain to chart their own destiny. Thank you.

Bahrain will prosecute medics who treated protesters; US and human rights organizations object

Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State f...

Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, speaking at a press conference. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Andrew Hammond of Reuters reported on March 20 that Bahrain will prosecute 2o medics who treated wounded protesters, despite international protests and allegations of torture.

On February 9, 2012, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said that Bahrain should seek “alternatives to criminal prosecution” in the case.

“However, more needs to be done in several key areas. First, there are hundreds of pending criminal cases stemming from the events of February and March, including a substantial number where individuals remain in detention. The BICI report recommends that the government drop charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression. The government should fully comply with this recommendation. Also in this area, the government continues to prosecute 20 medical professionals. Though we are not privy to all the evidence in this or other cases, we suggested that alternatives to criminal prosecution be considered in the cases of the medics.”

Read the account of their trial in this report from Brian Dooley of Human Rights First.

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