SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)Despite a pledge to stop abuses by its security forces, the ruling Sunni minority in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain is engaged in systematic and disproportionate use of tear gas on its restive Shiite majority, permitting police officers to routinely fire volleys at point-blank range at crowds and into homes and vehicles in Shiite neighborhoods, a leading rights group said in a report released on Wednesday.
The group, the Physicians for Human Rights, which has been highly critical of the Bahraini monarchy’s behavior since the Shiite protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings began there 18 months ago, called the policy on tear gas use unprecedented in the world, even among dictatorships where tear gas is a staple tool for crowd control.
Its report, based on dozens of interviews of victims in Bahrain and forensic evidence gathered there by the group’s investigators in April, said the Shiite populace’s abnormally prolonged exposure to the tear gas’s toxic components had already led to an alarming increase in miscarriages, respiratory ailments and other maladies.
It documented examples of grievous wounds suffered by civilians whose skulls and limbs had been struck by metal tear gas canisters blasted from a few feet away. The report also described instances in which people not engaged in protests were attacked with tear gas fired into their cars and through the windows or doors of their homes, including at least two cases in which residents died from complications from exposure to the gas because they were trapped in enclosed spaces.
“Since February 2011, the Bahraini government has unleashed a torrent of these toxic chemical agents against men, women and children, including the elderly and infirm,” asserted the report, titled “Weaponizing Tear Gas.”
Luma E. Bashmi, acting director of International Media Affairs at Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, rejected the report’s assertions. “The government of Bahrain denies and condemns the use of lethal force or unlawful means in controlling demonstrations in the Kingdom of Bahrain,” she said in a statement. “Any means that have been exercised by security forces adhere to international standards of riot control. Suggestions that the use of tear gas in Bahrain is severely injurious or even lethal is simply not backed up by any research or proof.”
The report acknowledged that an official Bahraini commission of inquiry that was convened last year to investigate abuses of Shiite protesters was highly critical, finding that security forces had used excessive force, torture and forced confessions in the crackdown. The Bahraini authorities had promised improvements as a result.
Richard Sollom, the deputy director of the Physicians for Human Rights and an author of the report, who was scheduled to testify on Wednesday at a House hearing in Washington on whether Bahrain has adhered to its promises, said that he had become cynical about official Bahraini pledges.
“What they’re very good at is rhetoric, not results,” he said in a telephone interview. “Literally, not much has changed.”
In the 100-year history of tear gas, Mr. Sollom said, “there is no other example where a country has continually assaulted its people with this toxic chemical.”
The report appeared likely to cause some awkwardness in the Obama administration, which has tempered its criticism of the Bahraini government’s repression even while acknowledging the legitimacy of the protesters’ grievances. Bahrain, home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, is seen as a strategic bulwark against the influence of Iran.
Mr. Sollom, who has visited Bahrain three times, said that tear gas attacks occurred weekly in some Shiite neighborhoods, and that the lingering smell was so pervasive that some residents gave guests gas masks.
He also said the Bahrain government had not responded to the group’s request for a breakdown on the exact types of tear gas used by the police. Nor has it explained precisely how and where it is obtaining its tear gas, although canisters recovered on the street by activists suggest that they come from the United States, France and Brazil. Mr. Sollom noted that the United States had withheld licenses for tear gas exports to Bahrain, which suggests that any American tear gas products used there might have been stockpiled before the American restriction, or re-exported from other countries.
According to Bahrain Watch, an activist group that has chronicled the government’s weapons use, the police have recently begun using unmarked tear gas canisters, presumably to obscure the country of origin.
Tear gas is the generic term for a group of at least 15 riot-control chemicals that disable people by exposing their lungs, skin and eyes to irritants.
Source : New York Times