Despite what critics say, the kingdom is making bold reforms to its security forces.So, the Grand Prix in Bahrain is over. The teams have packed up and the circus has moved on. They have a left a small nation feeling bewildered. Bewildered at the level of ignorance about what is really happening here, at the level of animosity and bile, at the media bias.
And bewildered that so many in the UK, a long-standing friend and ally for two centuries, could so readily swallow everything opposition groups and activists were saying.
The abiding image I have of the Grand Prix last weekend was of thousands of people enjoying themselves at the post‑event parties. Yet the media reports in Britain told a different story. Headlines suggested that the country was in flames and that there was a serious safety risk to the Formula One teams.
I do not mean to trivialize the situation in Bahrain. There remain difficulties, all of which require political solutions. But this is not Syria, to paraphrase David Cameron, not by a long way. There are regular peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain, and more peaceful demonstrations take place than violent ones. But these are seldom reported.
I am not saying the media weren’t doing their job by reporting clashes in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. However, as the experienced motor-racing correspondent Joe Saward said on his blog on Sunday, supposedly respectable international news agencies reported details that simply were not true. He wrote: “No one is denying there is trouble, but this is not a war zone and it is shameful that this is the message being sent out to the world.” In the end, the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix itself passed off without incident, as I expected it would.
Some commentators have suggested that this great sporting event was in some way a PR stunt to legitimise the government and to send a message to the world that everything is fine.
But as the Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said, ironically more attention was focused on the demonstrators over the past week than at any time since last year. If the Grand Prix had been cancelled, 200 journalists would not have been in the country to report on the demonstrators’ grievances.
The situation in Bahrain is far more complicated than often portrayed in the media. After last year’s unrest, His Majesty King Hamad al-Khalifa invited a group of independent lawyers and other experts, led by Cherif Bassiouni, to Bahrain to thoroughly investigate what had taken place. Their efforts led to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report. Following its publication, last November, the King acknowledged that some terrible things had happened. 30-five people died during the unrest last year, and some of those deaths were at the hands of the security forces.
These matters have not been ignored. Far from it. An independent, judge-led investigation unit has been set up to look into the deaths and the allegations of torture and mistreatment in order to hold those responsible to account.
Having taken the brave step, as it has been universally acknowledged, of accepting the difficult findings of the BICI, the King immediately set up a committee to push through its 26 recommendations. And last month – just over 100 days since the report – it was acknowledged by a special commission that substantial progress had been made.
One of those recommendations was to reform the practices of the police force, which is why I was invited to Bahrain, along with former US police chief John Timoney.
Over the past few months, we have been working with the Minister of Interior to implement the relevant changes. A new and independent police ombudsman has been appointed by royal decree. We are hiring 500 extra community police officers from all sections of Bahrain’s society to improve relations with the public. We have published a new police code of conduct. A comprehensive programme of training in human rights has begun. The CID is being reformed, and expert trainers are being commissioned to deliver the latest in modern investigative techniques. There is an agreement to build a new forensic laboratory to enable the police to rely on more scientific means to solve crime. These are just the headlines.
Challenges remain. The decision not to give visas to certain correspondents is one, as the Crown Prince said, that the government may wish to reflect upon. The death over the weekend of Salah Abbas al-Qattan, an anti-government protester, is also a powerful reminder of the tragic consequences of the unrest. However, the determination of the police chief to establish how Salah died and the level of resources now being applied to the investigation is testament to the new resolve to fix things.
As I said in my letter last week to the president of the FIA, Formula One’s governing body, I am not an apologist for what happened last year. Neither am I ashamed of my role in Bahrain in any way. Like many Bahrainis and expats, however, I am bewildered by the level of criticism aimed at a nation that has acknowledged its mistakes, but has plans in place to put things right.
John Yates is the former UK Head of Counter–Terrorism and is now the senior police adviser to the government of Bahrain
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