Bahrain's leaders pushed back against criticism by a leading rights group Wednesday that the Gulf state has failed to follow through with promised political and security reforms in the wake of the kingdom's anti-government uprising.
Authorities cited a series of measures taken since an independent report on the crisis came out last November, including giving more oversight to parliament.
Amnesty International says any progress has been overshadowed by harsh steps recently in attempts to quell the 21-month-old protests, including a ban on demonstrations and stripping 31 activists of citizenship.
"Bahrain is facing a stark choice between the rule of law or sliding into a downward spiral of repression and instability," Amnesty said in a report, issued on the anniversary of the independent fact-finding inquiry into Bahrain's unrest.
The inquiry, led by Egyptian-born legal scholar Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, called for sweeping overhauls in Bahrain's political system and investigations into alleged abuses by security forces after protests began in February 2011.
More than 55 people have been killed in clashes between Bahraini authorities and Shiite-led protesters demanding a greater political voice in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
Amnesty claims that Bahrain's rulers have made no serious effort to open the political system and have turned to hard-line measures to try to crush and intimidate the Shiite opposition. Last month, Bahrain imposed a blanket ban on political protests and later stripped 31 activists of their citizenship because of alleged protest links.
Both moves brought criticism from Washington, which has critical strategic ties with Bahrain as host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The base is one of the Pentagon's major counterbalances to Iran's expanding military presence in the Gulf.
On Tuesday, a senior U.S. official expressed worries that Bahrain's "society is moving apart" and could offer Iran new footholds in the tiny island nation. There is no direct evidence that Shiite power Iran supports Bahrain's protesters, but the U.S. and its Gulf Arab allies are wary of any chance of Iranian inroads in the region. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as part of a background briefing for journalists.
Amnesty said continued arrests and crackdowns by Bahraini authorities have made "a mockery of the reform process."
"Indeed, it has become evident that the authorities in Bahrain do not have the will to take the steps necessary to reform. Protestations to the contrary only underscore the gap between their rhetoric and reality," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
Hours after the Amnesty statement, a court in Bahrain sentenced 23 medical professionals to three-month jail terms on charges that included supporting protesters during the early weeks of the uprising last year. The sentences were suspended in lieu of fines, lawyers said. The cases against five other medics were dropped.
The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights group expressed dismay at the decision.
"We are disappointed, though not surprised, that the Bahraini regime once again has decided to punish health professionals merely for expressing their right to peaceful assembly," said Richard Sollom, deputy director of PHR, adding that Bahrain "should focus on prosecuting the people responsible for torturing many of those who were arrested and detained."
Bahraini authorities blame protesters for stepping up the level of violence, including frequent attacks by homemade firebombs and a series of blasts earlier this month that killed two expatriate workers from India and Bangladesh.
Bahrain's rulers also say they have made serious concessions, such as giving more oversight to parliament and investigating claims of abuse by security forces. Shiite leaders say that falls far short of demands for a role in high-level policymaking.
A Bahrain government progress report on the commission's recommendations says "ongoing reforms" are part of efforts to "combat violence and terrorism which has adversely affected the lives, security and wellbeing of citizens and residents."