GENEVA: The United States urged Bahrain on Wednesday to speed democratic reforms and hold meaningful talks with opposition groups to ensure stability in a strategic Gulf ally at a sensitive time.
Bahrain must halt the excessive use of force by police and prosecute security forces for alleged crimes linked to mass protests, including torture and deaths of detainees in custody, a senior U.S. official said.
"A stable, democratic healthy Bahrain, one where human rights issues are dealt with appropriately, is a country that's going to be a strong ally and we need that," Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told reporters in Geneva.
Washington values the "strong security relationship" it has had for 60 years with Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, "particularly in light of things going on in the Gulf now".
Posner did not elaborate.
Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim ruling family governs a Shi'ite-majority kingdom, has tense ties with Iran, whose disputed nuclear programme is a target of U.S. sanctions.
Posner was to hold talks later in the day with Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa who defended the kingdom's record at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
"We welcome peaceful expressions of disagreement, but not incitements to hatred and violence which damage the social fabric of a nation," Al Khalifa told the Geneva forum, pledging that his government would pursue "unprecedented reforms".
But Posner said progress had slowed and there had been no successful prosecutions of anyone involved in cases of torture and deaths in custody. "The fact is that a number of people, police and others who committed violations last February and March have not been held accountable," he said.
He urged Bahrain to allow free trade unions and dismiss criminal charges against peaceful protesters.
"These human rights issues need to be addressed to provide an environment where the society can engage in a meaningful dialogue or negotiation over its political future," Posner said.
"We also are concerned about the violence on the street, it's both Molotov cocktails, young kids throwing things at police, but then the police over-reacting and using excessive force and large amounts of tear gas," he added.
Bahrain has been in turmoil since a protest movement dominated by Shi'ites erupted in February 2011 during a wave of revolts against authoritarian governments across the Arab world.
The ruling Al Khalifa family quelled the revolt with martial law, troops from Saudi Arabia and police from the United Arab Emirates, but Shi'ites and police still clash almost daily.
Posner told the U.N. forum Bahrain was at a crossroads. It had shown "great courage" last year in setting up and accepting the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, but 10 months later implementation had lagged, he said.
On Sept. 4, a Bahraini civilian court upheld jail sentences of between five and 25 years against leaders of last year's pro-democracy uprising, a decision that could further ignite unrest.
"Activists are not criminals," Nada Dhaif, who was originally sentenced to 15 years for helping organise a medical tent for protesters, told the U.N. session.
Maryam Al Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said violations remained widespread.
"Use of excessive force is still a tool for suppressing daily protests, with unprecedented use of tear gas during protests and inside residential areas," she said, adding that arbitrary arrests and beating of detainees continued.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the government "continues to stall on the core issues and to deny that political detainees are still in Bahraini jails".
Britain and Austria demanded further reforms during the debate, part of the regular review of all U.N. member states.
"Accountability for those who committed crimes, including security forces, is vital," said Britain's envoy, Karen Pierce.
Al Khalifa said scores of police personnel had been investigated and 23 prosecutions initiated, resulting in three convictions and sentences so far. Some $2.6 million compensation had been paid to the families of 17 deceased victims.
"Let us follow the path of dialogue, not propaganda," he said, before abruptly cancelling a planned news conference.