By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain has imposed restrictions on groups trying to monitor reforms including the Gulf Arab state's handling of protests and asked the U.N. investigator into torture to postpone a trip, the United Nations and rights groups said on Thursday.
The U.N. human rights office in Geneva said Bahrain formally requested postponing until July the visit by the special rapporteur on torture, which had been scheduled for March 8-17.
The investigator, Juan Mendez, will express his regrets to Bahraini representatives in meetings next week over this "last minute postponement," said Xabier Celaya, a spokesman of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
He would also "seek to secure new dates as he remains very committed to undertaking this important visit," Celaya added.
Bahrain said it was "still undergoing major reforms and wants some important steps, critical to the special rapporteur's mandate, to be in place before he visits so he can assess the progress that Bahrain has made to date," the spokesman said.
Bahrain, a U.S. ally ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, has been under Western pressure to improve its rights record and institute political reforms after it crushed a pro-democracy uprising last year, imposing a period of martial law.
Fatima al-Balooshi, Bahrain's minister for social development, told the U.N. Human Rights Council this week the kingdom had drawn lessons from the upheaval.
"Mistakes were made. Serious wrongs were committed," she told the Geneva forum. "We believe we are on the right track."
Bahrain told a number of human rights organizations in January they should delay trips to the country to after February 22, the date the government set itself for reviewing policing, the judiciary, education, media and other reforms such as paying torture victims and national reconciliation - as recommended by a body of international legal experts in November.
The government said on Thursday it would need up to 20 more days to complete its plans for implementing the recommendations of the experts, whose Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) issued a damning report in November.
The BICI said protesters, who come mainly from the majority Shi'ite population, had suffered systematic torture to force confessions that were used in military trials.
The country remains in turmoil as clashes between youths and riot police continue daily in Shi'ite neighborhoods and the banking and tourism-based economy, already down after the world financial crisis, struggles to pick up.
VISA RULES FOR RIGHTS GROUPS
Three international rights groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Bahrain's Human Rights and Social Development Ministry informed them this week of new rules limiting them to five-day trips which must be arranged via a Bahraini sponsor.
Brian Dooley, director of the Human Rights Defenders Program with U.S. group Human Rights First, said he made three trips to Bahrain last year without such limits.
"After the BICI report the Bahraini government was supposed to improve its human rights record, but limiting NGO access like this is a step backwards," he said. HRW said it had planned a three week trip in March. Amnesty also hope to send a team.
The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The new rules follow an Interior Ministry announcement it would tighten tourist visa regulations after Western activists took part in anti-government demonstrations last month marking the first anniversary of the February 14 uprising.
Twelve activists, who entered on tourist visas, were deported. The government also refused visas to some media organizations, saying it had received too many applications.
Bahrain is due to host the Formula One grand prix in April.
Washington, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Manama, and former colonial power Britain have pressed Bahrain to ensure peaceful protest is allowed. Police allowed the main parties, led by Shi'ite group Wefaq, to hold a rally inside the capital this week.
Youths and independent activists stage regular protests in Shi'ite districts that are put down by riot police using armored vehicles, teargas, stun grenades and birdshot.
The Interior Ministry describes the youth protests as rioters who are causing chaos without a political aim. In the past two months, teenagers have increasingly thrown petrol bombs and other objects at police, often without provocation.
Opposition parties and activists say heavy policing to lock dock unauthorized protesters in villages has taken the death toll from 35 in June to over 60, many from the effects of tear gas. The government disputes the causes of death.
Opposition parties want a move to full-scale parliamentary democracy where the elected chamber has full legislative powers and can form cabinets. The government has given parliament more powers of scrutiny over budgets and ministers.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Alison Williams)