November 23, 2011

TELEVISION VIEWERS in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain were treated Wednesday to an extraordinary sight: their king and crown prince sitting and listening as an international jurist accused the regime of gross human rights abuses, including excessive police force, torture, coerced confessions and unfair trials. M. Cherif Bassiouni, the Egyptian-born jurist hired to investigate Bahrain’s popular uprising and its subsequent suppression, contradicted the regime’s claim that its brutality was not systematic; he also reported there was no evidence to support its contention that Iran was behind the uprising.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who hired Mr. Bassiouni to form his independent commission, deserves some credit for publicly receiving its searing conclusions. But the future of Bahrain will depend on whether the ruler and his family fully respond to its recommendations and move decisively toward meeting their citizens’ demand for democracy. That, in turn, will likely depend on whether the United States chooses to exercise the considerable leverage it holds over the country where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based.

Also to his credit, the king acknowledged that excessive force had been used under martial law between March and June and that prisoners had been tortured. He said laws would be reformed and those responsible for abuses punished. But the government is seeking to protect senior officials, including members of the Khalifa family, by claiming there was no government policy of employing brutality.

Mr. Bassiouni’s nearly-500-page report suggests otherwise. With 559 complaints having been registered, it cites “evidence of a deliberate practice . . . aimed at extracting confessions and statements by duress.” In a special security court, the report says, “a pattern of due process violations occurred . . . that denied most defendants elementary fair trial guarantees.” Some 2,900 people were arrested under martial law; 4,500 people were fired from their jobs for political reasons and, most troubling, 30 places of worship were demolished, most of them mosques of the disenfranchised Shiite majority.

Will the regime meet its pledge to follow the Bassiouni commission’s recommendations? One calls for “an independent and impartial mechanism to determine the accountability of those in government,” including senior military and civilian officials. It also says that those convicted of nonviolent political crimes should be released or pardoned; there are still many political prisoners, including senior opposition leaders.

Even more important are steps toward genuine democracy, including an end to discrimination against Shiites by the ruling Sunni elite. As the report notes, the reformist crown prince proposed far-reaching reforms in a failed dialogue with opposition leaders before martial law was imposed. Such a liberalization represents the only way Bahrain can avoid endless domestic conflict.

By its own account, the Obama administration has been restrained in pushing for that change because of U.S. military interests in Bahrain. But under congressional pressure, the State Department announced last month that it would hold up a $53 million arms sale to the regime until it saw the Bassiouni report and the government’s response to it. The report is clear enough; now it is incumbent on the administration to hold the Khalifa family to its promises of reform before going forward with the military sale — or the broader strategic relationship.