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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.