US: Bahrain falls short on political, human rights reforms

Bahrain has fallen short in implementing a series of political and human rights reforms, according to the State Department, undermining efforts to stabilize the tiny island kingdom after the Sunni-ruled government crushed Arab Spring protests five years ago.

In a report sent to Congress, the department documents Bahrain's implementation of recommendations made by an independent commission after the 2011 uprisings. Bahrain is an important U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf and hosts the Navy's 5th Fleet.

The report, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, cites progress in key areas but says failures in others diminishe the improvements and minimizes "popular acceptance of newly established government institutions."

The Embassy of Bahrain in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Claims of torture have been investigated and offenders have been convicted, according to the report. Families of victims of state violence have been compensated. Police and security forces have received human rights training, the report said, and mosques that were destroyed in 2011 have been rebuilt.

But key due-process protections — among them access to lawyers, assuring defendants have access to state-held evidence, and not building cases around forced confessions — "are not provided in a manner consistent with Bahrain's international obligations," according to the report.

Recommendations for the protection of freedom of expression and of the press have not been implemented, the report said.

More broadly, efforts to build trust across Bahraini society and develop an environment that will lead to a national reconciliation have stalled, according to the report.

Widespread protests in February 2011 that were led by the country's majority Shiites sought greater political rights from the Sunni monarchy. Authorities crushed the demonstrations with help from their Gulf neighbors, but low-level unrest continues. Small groups of protesters frequently take to the streets and regularly clash with riot police. Many government opponents and rights activists remain in jail.

An investigation, known as the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, into the initial uprising called for overhauls in the political system and investigations into alleged abuses by security forces.

State Department spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday noted that Bahrain had implemented several important recommendations. But Kirby said those that have not been installed continue to undermine the progress Bahrain has made.

Bahrain last week suspended the country's largest Shiite opposition group, a move that alarmed the U.S.

"We are concerned that the intensified crackdown on civil society actors will only lead to greater instability and strengthen the influence of outside actors," Kirby said.

The advocacy group Human Rights First criticized the State Department's report as inadequate and poorly researched. The group also said the report is five months overdue.

"The State Department has shirked its job in providing Congress with a frank judgment of human rights reforms in Bahrain," Human Rights First's Brian Dooley said Wednesday. "The report is largely descriptive, often repeating the Bahraini government's claims without offering a verdict on whether specific recommendations have been met."


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