22nd Oct 2016

Top EU official defends Bahrain crackdown

A senior advisor to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has defended Bahrain's security forces after they opened fire on protesters with live ammunition last week.

Speaking to MEPs in the foreign affairs committee in Brussels on Tuesday (22 March) after visiting Bahrain, Robert Cooper, Ashton's top advisor on the western Balkans and the Middle East, said the island is normally "a rather pleasant, peaceful place."

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He went on: "I'm not sure if the police have had to deal with these public order questions before. It's not easy dealing with large demonstrations in which there may be violence. It's a difficult task for policemen. It's not something that we always get right in the best Western countries and accidents happen."

He noted that two policemen were also killed last week.

Referring to opposition roadblocks on the Manama airport road, he added: "The situation had in fact, from the point of view of the management of Bahrain, which is a small island, become almost intolerable ... One should understand the authorities were right to restore calm and order and that's what they've done. But that is only right if it is followed by dialogue."

Bahrain security forces on Friday in a crackdown on protesters in the capital's Pearl Square reportedly killed four people and injured over 200.

Amateur video footage showed heavily-armed balaclava-wearing men shooting at civilians. Shots were also fired into the crowd from convoys of jeeps and tanks were brought onto the streets in a level of violence described by the United Nations as "shocking."

The UN on Tuesday said between 50 and 100 people have gone missing since the crackdown began, two of which have turned up dead. A doctor detained by security forces said he was severely beaten and threatened with rape.

Cooper's endorsement disturbed one MEP at the hearing. "'Accidents happen?' ... I'm sorry this is a funny picture as you describe it," German Green deputy Franziska Brantner said. "What are you talking about? I find this very scary."

For his part, Ashton's top diplomat in charge of the Middle East, Hugues Mingarelli, told MEPs the EU has no clout in the Gulf. "To be realistic, the instruments at our disposal, the opportunities we have, are fairly restricted," he said.

Turning to Yemen, Mingarelli predicted that President Ali Abdullah Saleh is likely to fall in a "few days."

He said: "I don't see how the president can govern when part of the army, several tribal leaders and parts of his own government have distanced themselves from him ... Things are getting out of control. Things are going to speed up in the next few days."

He added that the EU, or EU "eminent personalities" could go to mediate in Yemen if they were invited.

German centre-right deputy Elmar Brok said the EU is applying double standards to Libya and to the Arabian Gulf killings. Speaking of President Saleh's snipers aiming at people's heads, he said: "I really can't see the difference between what is happening in Libya and what is happening in Yemen."

The Arabian Gulf countries are Western allies in the war on terror and in the campaign against Iran.

Cooper, a former British diplomat and a writer, said in an essay in 2002: "The challenge to the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open co-operative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states ... we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era - force, pre-emptive attack, deception."

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