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Bahrain Feature: Today's United Nations Review of the Regime and Human Rights

This account is drawn from the live reports of Dominic Kavakeb, Bahrain's Ministry of Information and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alaa Shehabi, Khalid Ibrahim, Bahrain Freedom Spring, and Ahlam Oun.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has convened today in Geneva to discuss its Universal Periodic Review on Bahrain.

The session opened with a statement by Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed al Khalifa reaffirming Bahrain's commitment to the cause of universal human rights. He praised the police for the "restraint they have shown", while focusing on "thousands of cases of vandalism...reported by Bahraini citizens in the last few months" and claiming "7000 attempts to block roads with burning tires". He declared that "500 people have been recruited from all segments of society in the police force. We have never lost momentum."

The Foreign Minister combined conciliation, "I am pleased that many Bahrainis are in the gallery today. I extend a hand of constructive engagement to each of you", with warning, "No one has the right to force factionalism upon a society against its will."

The first part of the hearing went well for the regime, with supportive statements from Thailand, Qatar, Belarus, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE --- which one activist wryly noted, saluted Bahrain for regime while "putting most of its human rights defenders and activists behind bars".

However, the discussion turned as Austria, speaking for European countries, called for the release of prominent activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, who is serving a life sentence, and other political prisoners. The US warned, "Ten months after the release [of the report], the Government is losing the momentum of implementing the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry," and called for more to be done for "reform".

Britain echoed that call, adding that perpetrators of abuses should be held accountable and activists should have their prison term revoked: "We urge Bahrain to adopt a clear timetable to implement [the BICI recommendations and those of the Universal Periodic Review].We share Austria concerns on sentencing." However, an observer noted, "Although UK had concerns about some issues in Bahrain, they did not apply necessary pressure. USA were stronger."

The most dramatic moment occurred, however, when Dr Nada Dhaif --- sentenced to a long prison sentence in 2011 by a military court, with the term revoked this summer on appeal --- challenged the Bahraini Foreign Minister. Citing cases such as detained activist Zainab Alkhawaja, she said, "Women are left without income, they suffer from humiliations and arrests. She demanded freedom for political prisoners and made clear to the Foreign Minister, "We hold you responsible in front of the [Human Rights Council today."

The Foreign Minister, "shaken from the speech", insisted no one was being detained "for free expression": "We had a human rights situation and we are dealing with it." He then made his headline announcement --- whether it was planned in advance or in response to the pressure in the hearing, we do not know --- that the regime will now accept the visit of a UN Special Rapporteur.

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