By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Western countries led by the United States called on Bahrain on Wednesday to investigate alleged crimes committed by security forces during mass protests and to allow freedom of expression.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa defended his government's record at the U.N. Human Rights Council and said it would pursue "unprecedented reforms".
"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.
But the United States urged Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, to reform its police and security forces, allow free trade unions and dismiss criminal charges against all who have taken part in peaceful political expression.
"While official media have reported some initial progress on accountability, including charges brought against police officers announced earlier this week, much more needs to be done," Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said in a speech.
"Today Bahrain is at a crossroads," he declared. Bahrain had shown "great courage" last year in setting up and accepting the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry led by Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni.
"Ten months after the release of the report, however, we remain concerned that the government is losing momentum on implementation," Posner said.
Pursuing reforms would help create an environment where "meaningful dialogue" can take place.
The small Gulf kingdom has been in political turmoil since a protest movement dominated by majority Shi'ite Muslims erupted in February 2011 during a wave of revolts against authoritarian governments across the Arab world.
The Sunni Muslim ruling Al Khalifa family put down the uprising with martial law, troops from Saudi Arabia and police from the United Arab Emirates, but unrest has resumed, with almost daily clashes between Shi'ites and police.
On September 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 organize a medical tent for protesters, said in a speech to the U.N. session on Wednesday. She urged the release of all political prisoners.
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.
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 ambassador, Karen Pierce. "We share concerns on sentencing and we emphasize the right to freedom of expression and peaceful protests."
Britain also expected progress on the "political track".
Saudi Arabia's delegation said Bahrain's government was trying to strengthen its human rights bodies and implement recommendations by the independent commission.
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.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alistair Lyon)