By Reed Stevenson
MANAMA (Reuters) - The international committee investigating violent protests in Bahrain this year will be given access to official files and be able to meet witnesses in secret, the panel's chair said on Thursday.
The five-member panel of human rights and legal experts, unveiled ahead of a national dialogue set to start on Saturday, is part of Bahrain's efforts to restore its image after its Sunni rulers cracked down on demonstrations led mostly by the Shi'ite majority in February and March.
"We will ask for files, we will go to the prisons," said panel chairman Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American law professor and U.N. war crimes expert who was involved in the formation of the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) and recently headed a U.N. inquiry into events in Libya.
"This is no different from any criminal investigation," he told reporters in Manama, blocks away from where protesters had taken to the streets.
At least two dozen people were killed, including protesters and security personnel, and hundreds were arrested during the unrest, which Bahrain's Sunni rulers said was mostly the work of Shi'ite protesters pushing a sectarian agenda, backed by Shi'ite Iran.
Shi'ites deny the accusations and say they were protesting against systematic discrimination that limits their access to jobs and social services. Many say people have been tortured in the crackdown.
"The events that took place were very, very controversial throughout the region, and nobody knows what really happened," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst who has argued for more open government in his own country.
The government has said the commission's final report and recommendations, due in October, will be published in full.
Bassiouni said the panel would meet in Bahrain around July 20 and that its investigations would probably extend to events before and after the peak of unrest in February and March.
He said the Bahraini government would pay for the investigation, but that the money would be held in a separate account and used at the panel's discretion.
CLEARING THE AIR
Bahrain invited in security forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in March to help clear the streets of protesters, and declared a state of emergency that lasted until early June.
After martial law was lifted, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called for a national dialogue, which will begin on Saturday. Most of the Saudi troops will begin withdrawing next week.
"Few regimes have taken it upon themselves to examine the causes and consequences of unrest taking place during the course of their governance," Bahrain's government said in a statement.
The king has said all reforms are up for discussion, but with hundreds of activists still in jail, critics say reaching reconciliation will be difficult.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay welcomed the establishment of the commission, which includes Canadian judge and former ICC president Philippe Kirsch, British human rights lawyer Nigel Rodley, Iranian lawyer Mahnoush Arsanjani and Kuwaiti Islamic law expert Badria al-Awadhi.
"We were originally invited to send our own assessment mission. At the request of the king of Bahrain, we held back our own assessment mission because I always encourage the establishment of credible, national investigations," Pillay told reporters in Geneva.
"So I have noted the king's decree where he set up the commission; they are highly respected individuals and I would prefer then to see the outcome of their investigations."
One key question is whether the government will act on the committee's recommendations. After a period of repression between 1994 and 2000 that drew fierce criticism from human rights groups, the current king ascended the throne and introduced reforms -- although there were no subsequent reparations or prosecution of those accused of abetting torture.
"That will be the test of the government" said Dakhil, "-- whether the government is going to abide by the decisions and findings of the commission, no matter what they are."
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Kevin Liffey)