Group urges gov’t to scrap immunity for human rights violators, reform constitution

MANAMA (AP) — Bahrain’s first independent rights body called on Thursday for the government to scrap a royal decree granting immunity to those involved in the unrest of the 1990s, and to reform the tiny Gulf kingdom’s constitution to give more political power to the people.
Critics claim the real intent of Decree No. 56, signed by the king in 2002, is to shield security officials alleged to have tortured and detained people during the years of unrest in which more than 40 people died.

“This Decree No. 56 is against human rights and we call for its annulment and to find a mechanism for national reconciliation,” Sabeeka Al Najjar general-secretary of the Bahrain Human Rights Society told the Associated Press.

Najjar, whose group issued its third Bahrain annual report on Wednesday night, also called for “rehabilitation and compensation of the victims of torture and an objective investigation into all the complaints of torture.” There have been a series of protests — most recently on Thursday and Friday — in Bahrain against the decree since it was signed in 2002 by the king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Opposition to the decree gained new momentum last month when five lawmakers spoke out against it in parliament. However it still passed through the assembly by majority vote.

The unrest that began in 1994 and lasted for several years was led by Shiites who wanted a return to democracy and an end to the perceived state discrimination against them.

Forty people died in violence that included arson and clashes between demonstrators and riot police.

Bahrain’s Shiites form a slight majority of the country’s 400,000 citizens. The ruling family belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam.

The decree stipulates that the kingdom’s courts will not consider any criminal prosecution involving events prior to the general amnesty of February 2001. This would grant immunity to those implicated in the 1990s arson.

Najjar said the report’s 29 recommendations includes constitutional reforms. “We want the elected house to have a real legislative authority so that people will have a real say when they elect their representatives,” she said.

Constitutional reforms could be brought about by a nationwide referendum on a bill of rights or by forming a national committee elected by the people to oversee the charter’s amendment, she said. Bahrain currently has a bicameral system under which the parliament has an elected lower chamber and an upper chamber appointed by the king. Bahrainis have launched street protests recently demanding abolishment of the appointed body.

The king has taken bold steps towards democratic reform since coming to power in 1999, including reinstating parliamentary elections, pardoning political prisoners and allowing exiles to return. But critics accuse him of not doing enough, pointing to the decree and to the the fact that he appoints the upper house of parliament rather than allowing an election. In its report the rights group also called for an independent judiciary, urged authorities to amend laws governing societies, clubs and the media, allow the establishment of political parties, solve the burgeoning unemployment problem, protect expatriate labour, and work to secure the release of six Bahrainis detained at US run Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

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