- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Rarely has a human rights report been accompanied by as much hoopla as the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s (BICI) investigation. The report, which examines the government’s crackdown during domestic unrest in February and March, was published on Nov. 23. Its release was accompanied by a televised speech by the BICI’s head, Cherif Bassiouni, accusing King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s security forces of operating with a sense of impunity, and using torture and excessive force to quell the protests.
The 501-page tome (warning: large .pdf file ahead) is a tough read. It neglects to name the officials responsible for human rights violations, and often falls back on a "he said-she said" account of events that leaves readers none the wiser about what took place. But there are a few sections of the report that shed new light on the abortive revolution that occurred on the island kingdom in February and March.
The first protester’s death: The first casualty in Bahrain’s crackdown occurred on Feb. 14, when police killed Ali Abdulhadi Almeshaima in the village of Daih. As the report makes clear, Almeshaima’s death galvanized the protest movement, as demonstrators took to the street for his funeral and to express outrage over the killing. The government’s story is that Almeshaima was participating in a demonstration and was killed after the protesters attacked a nearby police unit, while his family claims that he was shot by a police unit in cold blood, "for no apparent reason."
On page 224, the commission comes down on the side of Almeshaima’s family:
"The death of Mr Almeshaima can be attributed to the use of excessive force by police officers. At the time of the shooting, there were no reports of any disturbances in the Daih area. Furthermore, the fact that Mr Almeshaima was shot in the back at close range indicates that there was no justification for the use of lethal force."
The death toll: The casualties from Bahrain’s uprising is a matter of some dispute — the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has listed 46 people that it says were killed by excessive force from the country’s security forces. The BICI, however, finds that 35 people will killed during the revolt.
On page 214, it breaks down its death toll: 13 civilians were reportedly killed by security forces, five people died from torture, eight civilians died from unattributed causes, four expatriate workers were killed by both civilians and security forces, and five policy and army officers died during the unrest.
Fake blood: One of the narratives pushed by pro-government supporters is that protesters smeared fake blood over themselves to exaggerate, for media consumption, the brutality of the security forces’ crackdown. Among the government’s charges against 20 imprisoned medical workers, which it accuses of colluding with the protesters, is that they provided demonstrators with donor blood for just this purpose, and also gave atropine to some individuals to imitate nerve gas injuries — again for media consumption.
The BICI report, on pages 74 and 75, appears to confirm the rumors that protesters used fake blood in at least one Feb. 18 protest:
"The protesters approached the BDF barricade at approximately 17:00 and demanded access to the roundabout. According to subsequent BDF investigations, the protesters began to verbally abuse the military personnel deployed in the area and to shout anti-government slogans. Reports also indicated that certain individuals among the demonstrators smeared their bodies with red liquid to feign injuries that could be recorded and subsequently aired on the internet and on satellite news channels."
Torture: The most explosive segment of the report relates to the torture and death of protesters at the hands of Bahrain’s security forces. Strangely, in the case of two of the five protesters who died in police custody from torture, officers tried to cover up their crimes by listing the cause of death as related to sickle cell anemia.
On pages 238 and 239, the report recounts a witness’s statement about the events that led to the death of Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Asheri on April 9:
"The witness stated that all the detainees in the same cell were blindfolded and handcuffed, and forced to lie on their stomachs. On one of the mornings, the deceased began to experience hallucinations or confusion, whereby he began banging on the door shouting his name. The prison guards shouted at him to be quiet and when he did not comply, they entered his cell. The witness heard the deceased being beaten and he heard him scream after each beating. The witness then heard a shuffling noise after which the deceased‘s shouts became muffled. The witness then heard a Pakistani say in Urdu, ‘He is dead.’"