Press Briefing by Assistant Secretary of State Michael H. Posner in Bahrain

Manama, Bahrain

This is my fourth visit to Bahrain in the last 14 months, and I welcome the opportunity to be here. Bahrain is an important partner of the United States. We have a long-standing alliance based on shared political economic and security interests. Both countries benefit from stability and prosperity here, and from a society where all people here are able to contribute to the political process.

During my three days in Manama, I have met with a number of senior government officials, including the Crown Prince; the Ministers of Justice, Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Human Rights; the Attorney General; and the head of the Shura Council. I also met with lawyers, journalists, medical professionals, human rights advocates, and members of political societies, including the opposition.

My discussions focused on the implementation of the recommendations made in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report. As my government has said, it is a great credit to King Hamad that he initiated the BICI process, accepted its recommendations and appointed a national commission to coordinate implementation of those recommendations. It is commendable for any government to invite and participate in an independent examination of its human rights record.

The government of Bahrain has taken many important steps toward the long-term institutional reforms identified in the report, such as removing arrest authority from the national security agency, drafting legislation concerning the investigation and prosecution of torture, and drafting a code of conduct for police based on international best practices. The government also has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. It has begun to rebuild religious sites, and engaged a team of qualified experts to advise on policing and legal reforms. These are signs of the government’s commitment to address the underlying cause of last year’s violence.

However, more needs to be done in several key areas. First, there are hundreds of pending criminal cases stemming from the events of February and March, including a substantial number where individuals remain in detention. The BICI report recommends that the government drop charges against all persons accused of offenses involving political expression. The government should fully comply with this recommendation. Also in this area, the government continues to prosecute 20 medical professionals. Though we are not privy to all the evidence in this or other cases, we suggested that alternatives to criminal prosecution be considered in the cases of the medics.

Second, while the Ministry of the Interior is taking steps to enhance the professionalization of the police, it needs to do more. Escalating violence in the streets points to the need for steps that will begin to integrate the police force, as recommended in the BICI report, so that Bahrain can build a police force that reflects the diversity of the communities it serves.

Third, with regard to the issue of dismissed workers, we urge the government, the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions and the private sector through the Tripartite Commission to continue to clarify and verify dismissals and reinstatements to the same or comparable positions. All parties should redouble their efforts to reach a resolution through a social dialogue and collaborative approach.

Finally, we call on the government to continue to prosecute those officials responsible for the violations described in the BICI report.

The United States views the BICI report and its follow-up as a bold measure by the government to begin to rebuild confidence with the Bahraini people. Implementing these recommendations is not an easy task, and we commend the efforts undertaken so far to realize the goals of the BICI process. Ultimately, the goal of the BICI and implementation of its recommendations is to create a path toward genuine political dialogue and national reconciliation.

In the days leading up to February 14, we call on all Bahraini citizens to refrain from violence. We also urge the government to permit peaceful demonstrations and the right of all citizens to express their political views.

We condemn the violent street actions that have escalated in recent months and that have included attacks on police with Molotov cocktails, metal projectiles and other instruments of harm. Such violence undermines public safety and further divides society.

At the same time, we continue to receive credible reports of excessive force by police, including widespread and sometimes indiscriminate use of tear gas. We urge Bahraini authorities to ensure compliance with international doctrines of necessity and proportionality.

Next Tuesday will mark the one-year anniversary of the first demonstrations in Bahrain. The days and weeks surrounding the anniversary are a moment for all Bahrainis in all segments of society to come together to move beyond the pain of last year and begin to forge a more peaceful, prosperous future through genuine dialogue.

We renew our call on all parties, including the government, political societies and others to engage in dialogue and negotiation in which all elements of society have a real voice. This must be a process led by Bahrainis themselves. It will not be easy. And it can only succeed by building a greater degree of mutual respect and mutual trust.

As a longtime friend of Bahrain, my government stands ready to support you.

Question: Tamam Abou Safi from Al-Bilad newspaper. There was a statement, a little bit official, about a union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. How do you view the future of (inaudible) martial agreements Bahrain has signed, like the FTA, it’s an individual agreement. (inaudible) How do you look to the future of Syria? Syria now under war. There is any, like, is it possible for the United States to consider the situation? We see like Kosovo scenario there in the future or just we’ll hear statement and we will keep die there?

Assistant Secretary Posner: On the first question. We.. I have no comment on relations between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Bahrain is a sovereign state. It’s a longtime ally of the United States. We fully expect to have it continue the relationship with Bahrain and to continue to strengthen their relationship. With respect to Syria, we for months have been condemning the violence which has escalated in recent days. We’ve called for the government to step down. We commend the Gulf States, the GCC and the Arab League for the role they played, the leadership role. I know there are going to be more meetings coming up in the next few days. The sooner there can be a political resolution there and Assad leaves, there’s a transition to a new future for Syria, the better, because the violence in deplorable and we condemn it.

Reporter: I am with the Daily Tribune, my name is Raji. There is a general concern on the side of the population on the delay of the implementation of the BICI report. Would you like to comment in that?

Assistant Secretary Posner: We…you know, I think from the get go when the government announced the commission to implement or oversee the implementation of the BICI recommendations, the deadline was the end of February. My being here in part is to meet with members of the commission and others to assess progress. We are now into the beginning of February. I think our expectation is that more will be done in the coming weeks. A number of things have already been done but we have had very constructive discussions with the government about both what has been accomplished and some of the things which I mentioned in my statement which still need to be done.

Question: Reem Khalifa AP (Question inaudible)

Assistant Secretary Posner: There’s three or four questions in there, I’ll try to answer as many as I can. First of all, Bahrain is a sovereign state. The United States and Bahrain have a strong and longstanding relationship. We will continue to work with an independent Bahrain as it builds its future. The future of this country, as I said in my statement, is really up to the people who live in Bahrain and its need for a meaningful dialogue that negotiates the future of this country. It’s up to Bahrainis from all persuasions and political perspectives to step up now and be part of it. There really is a moment now, an opening, for those kinds of discussions to take place and we encourage all Bahrainis to take part in that. With respect to the cases that are still pending, I will repeat that we urge the cases involving peaceful expression of views not to be prosecuted. If people are in detention for those sorts of activities, the cases should be dismissed, as the BICI report says. And we’ve had a series of constructive discussions in the past few days reiterating that point. And also that as part of the discussion going forward, I think there really is a need, in the broader sense, to turn the page on the events of the last year and begin to look forward, no so much focused on things that went wrong on all sides but to look to the future of this country and figure out how to really bring people together.

Question: Peter Kenyon NPR. With the anniversary coming up and the potential for escalation of violence could you talk a little bit about the discussions you may have had in general about what you would like or hope to see from the government consider in terms of police behavior, responses to protests, and trying to keep that violence down as much as possible. And the second, different topic, anything you can tell me on the pending arms sale to Bahrain?

Assistant Secretary Posner: On the anniversary, you know, I think a couple of things. One, we were encouraged over the last five days that the government cooperated with Al Wifaq in allowing demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations, that took place without incident. We are encouraging and will continue to encourage that there be space for people to express their political views openly and in a peaceful manner. And at the same time we’ve urged both the government and political opposition, including Al Wifaq, to do everything to restrain acts of violence. On the part of Al Wifaq we’ve said very clearly that we condemn the use of Molotov cocktails and those street actions that have been occurring almost on a nightly basis. And we’ve urged them, in the extent that they have the influence, to try to address that. And at the same time we have been very clear with the government, as I was in my statement that official restraint is also important- use of tear gas, the use of excessive force, needs to be curbed.

Question: Andrew Hammond from Reuters. It seems that the events on the ground, the clashes going on that are happening and they’re encouraged because there is a political vacuum. I’m wondering is that something that you felt from the government that they understand? Do you feel that it has to be pressed to them more that there is this vacuum and things will probably go on as long as that’s the case.

Assistant Secretary Posner: Well I think it’s a broad observation that, and it’s something that I think anybody here sees, that there is a divide in the society and there is a lack of trust and thus far insufficient engagement leading to a political dialogue. And we are hopeful and have encouraged, again all sides, to redouble efforts and to take initiative to be part of a political dialogue where Bahrainis address their future. I think this is a moment where that can be rekindled and that would address the problem that you identified.

Reporter: Mohamed Al-Ghasra from CNN. Every time you come here you ask the government to whatever you said now but is there any reaction? Did they promise something to say what they have done especially is that after BICI report 16 people died (inaudible) on 12 or 14 of February demonstrations will go to Pearl Roundabout and the government will stop them, will crash them if they go? Is there a signal through American…just.. (Inaudible)?

Assistant Secretary Posner: On the first question, I am not going to get into the details of each conversation we have with the government. The conversations were constructive. They are open. We are not shy about some of our concerns, some of which have expressed here but there is a sense of genuine dialogue and the substance of conversation was about some of the remaining challenges. So, I am optimistic that there is going to be more changes. I know people in this country want some of those things to happen as much and more than we do so we are reinforcing things that people I the society are saying themselves. On the question of people going to the roundabout. You if people want to provoke violence and violent action, there will be opportunities to do that. Our hope and what we would urge everybody here is that the day of the anniversary is an opportunity to reflect, to take stark of where things are today and really look to the future; a brighter future where people are living in peace and working together. So, I think if there are opportunities for people to demonstrate peacefully, they should do that. We respect that and people all over the world are entitled to express their views but again we urge restraint and an end to the violence.

Question: (Inaudible question)

Assistant Secretary Posner: Well, I think what happened in the last 5 days in an example where there was a communication between al Wifaq and the Ministry of Interior, the police, there was a time and place and thousands of people gathered peacefully to express their views. That is what happens in our society and every society. I think it is incumbent on the government to make those spaces available and it’s incumbent on those who wish to demonstrate to find a way to have that communication and establish a process to have a peaceful demonstrations.

Question: There are rumors of a new dialogue to be launched… [inaudible} . What do you see as the prospects for dialogue?

Assistant Secretary Posner: I’m not going to characterize – either for the opposition or the government – what their intentions are. I’ll say we’ve had very open discussions both with the leadership from Al Wefaq and a range of people in the government, and our message to them was the same, as well as to other political actors: This is the moment to take the initiative to make a genuine Bahraini dialogue and negotiation, to try to find a future direction that works for everybody’s interest. I think there’s an opportunity to do that. It’s now up to the various parties to make that happen.

Question: (Inaudible question) to open pearl roundabout?

Assistant Secretary Posner: I didn’t ask that question specifically and that the government made it clear that they do not intend to open the roundabout. That is what they said publicly and said it in multiple settings. What we did say to them, and said it in multiple settings, is that there ought to be, needs to be, alternatives or opportunities for people to demonstrate peacefully and I would encourage those who want to engage in peaceful demonstrations to work with the ministry and the police to find the appropriate venues to make that happen. I think people ought to be, and can be, able to express their views, demonstrate and express their concerns but this a moment for people to do those things in peaceful manner.

Question: (In audible question) what are the major changes you have noticed since your last visit, towards settling the problem?- Akhbar al khaleej

Assistant Secretary Posner: Settling the problem is a bigger thing than a month will allow but there have happened a number of various specific things that are encouraging in some of the institution buildings that I alluded to. There is now an effort in the prosecutor’s office to establish a unit that will examine and advance prosecution of cases involving torture that is a capacity that was lacking in the past. And there is willingness to, and a desire, to build up that capacity. Since I was here there are two police advisors from the US and UK that are meeting on a regular basis with the ministry of interior and talking about good practices and there is now in the works a code of conduct for the police built on international practice. The ICRC, which had an agreement in principle, has begun to visit the prisons. So there are steps being taken. Some of these things are going to take place over time, building institutions does not happen overnight, but there really is a sense here, that on a range of places, out of sight where people are not seeing these things publicly that steps are being taken to put the infrastructure in place. Those are three examples.

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