Closed Kingdom

As night falls in villages around Bahrain’s capital Manama, candlelight flickers in the dusty streets. Small groups of locals hold peaceful protests. There is an air of fear given what has taken place. Sometimes, the vigils are targeted by police, dispersed with tear gas. But worse, the night time also brings security force raids where people are ripped out of their beds and dragged away in front of screaming wives and children.

This is Bahrain since the Government imposed Martial Law on March 15. A month prior, hundreds of Bahrainis set up camp at Pearl Roundabout in Manama. They were mostly Shia youth, inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, who had had enough of unemployment and perceived discrimination by their Sunni rulers. Riding a wave of optimism and hope, tens of thousands more were swept out into the street to join the pro reform demonstrations. What they wanted was a constitutional monarchy, a real one. Instead, the demonstrations were brutally suppressed, 31 people were killed and many more wounded.

It’s now May. Peal Roundabout is no more, destroyed in the final assault by Bahrain’s forces to push protesters from the iconic site as if that would also destroy the hope and optimism of those it attracted.

Since that time, four men have been condemned to death for allegedly running over a policeman during the protests. Many more activists have been charged and are awaiting trial. Bahrain’s Centre for Human Rights says more than 800 people have been arrested. The fear of what happens when someone is arrested is real. It’s not just a fear of arrest, doctored evidence and a show trial. It’s fear of the unknown, of torture, of death. Human Rights Watch says four detainees have died in detention since April 2. The Bahrain Defence Force Hospital says one died of ‘hypovolimic shock,’ which is caused by excessive blood loss. Another died of ‘kidney failure’ and another two died of a pre existing condition, ‘sickle cell anaemia.’

Human Rights Watch, like a handful of other rights organisations, has had a presence in Bahrain since violence erupted. It has been investigating alleged abuses. The US based organisation doesn’t buy the official line about deaths in detention, “Four detainee deaths in nine days is a crime, not a coincidence,” said Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director. “The government tells families of detainees nothing about their whereabouts or well-being while they are alive or about the circumstances of their deaths.”

Maryam Al Khawaja, a human rights activist, says the deaths are clear evidence torture is taking place. Her own father, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, a prominent human rights activist, and two other family members are detained. The family says Abdulhadi was beaten, choked and arrested on April 9. It took two weeks before they received any news of his fate. Finally, he called, saying he was going to stand trial in a military court the next morning. No one was allowed into proceedings, not even lawyers. “We had no idea if he was going to stand trial, if he already had… we didn’t even know what the charges are,” Maryam says from New York. Her father has since been charged with anti regime activities and put on trial with 20 others. Since the arrests began, she has been unable to return home, fearing a similar fate.

There are few activists and protesters still willing to talk openly about what is happening. On the phone, their voices are hushed, they say little. We’re being monitored, they’re listening. On Facebook and email, depending on how you’ve come to their attention, they say the situation is slightly better but only slightly. Many of those who screamed the loudest on February 17 are silent. Eerily so. Some have been forced to contain their views – arbitrarily detained, beaten and released to live in fear.

People too afraid to speak over the phone will meet face to face as the next best option. But even that presents challenges. Taxis draw attention in the villages. One man who won’t share his name, says in a whisper over the phone, ‘Security forces can spot outsiders heading into the villages. Private cars are safer, but even then, who’s safe really?’

Checkpoints have been set up. Residents say they are humiliating and offensive. It’s forced some residents to cease going out into the street, lest they are stopped. Another man, an amateur photographer, is in constant fear of arrest. His tone has changed since February when he openly challenged the government. His brother was arrested praying at a mosque on April 14 he says and his neighbour was dragged away days later. He has heard nothing about either man since: “They gave us no reason, we don’t know where he is and if we ask, no one tells us. We’re not allowed to ask.”

Being in the wrong place and the wrong time is enough to be arrested, “In the morning it’s okay, but after 3 pm if the police see us out in Shia areas, near the shops or houses, sometimes they shoot at us with tear gas or arrest us.” He finishes, “they’ve gone mad.”

In the past few weeks, since arrests have intensified, he has left his camera at home rather than be caught and accused of working against the Government. Or even working as a spy, part of a so called ‘external threat,’ which Bahrain officials have used constantly to justify the crackdown and the continuing presence of Saudi Arabian troops in the country. The threat, according to the Government, is Iran. Protesters reject the suggestion they were backed by Iran or foreign group two months ago. And they reject it still.

Women detained

“Look around you, at all the women, we feel safe. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have come here with our children,” said one young woman, as she sat in Pearl roundabout on February 19. The protests brought thousands of them onto the street. Dozens are now in prison. BCHR says at least three are pregnant.

One of the youngest detainees is 20 year old Ayat Hassan Yousef Qurmezi, a poet. Her family has not heard from her since she was arrested. They say she is being held in a prison with common criminals and drug dealers.

The arrested cover a wide section of society; activists, athletes, journalists, nurses, doctors and a large number of teachers and students. Hundreds went on strike during the unrest. Reports surface daily of threats, intimidation and abuse in schools, at the hands of security forces.

One account released by human rights campaigners details the harrowing experience at a girls school in Hamad Town two weeks ago. “Police stormed the school without any prior notice… they went to my cousin`s class at 12 pm; they had two girls names… one of them was my cousin,” says the statement.

It’s alleged female police officers took the girls, aged 16 and 17, out of class, into another room to interrogate them, accusing them of anti government activities. Inside, teachers and other students were lined against a wall. The students were ordered to repeatedly slap their teacher in the face, when they refused, the police officers did it for them. They were then taken to the police station.

“A female and then two men… videotaped them and afterwards started calling them names; branded them whores and prostitutes,” says the statement.

It continues, “The police brought a thick plastic hose and lashed and beat the girls on different parts of their bodies (legs, arms, stomach, chest, etc..). My cousin`s head was smashed against the station cell wall several times until she bled; her nose bled, forehead and cheeks were all bleeding from the hard continuous smashing… Now my cousin`s body is all bruised… but worse, she is now psychologically traumatized, mentally withdrawn and too scared to go back to school… for fear of repeated assault.” Furthermore, reports this week that security forces are threatening school girls with rape has unnerved many.

Nabeel Rajab, head of Bahrain’s Centre for Human Rights, who himself was arrested, beaten and released, says there are fears for all detainees, particularly female detainees, “we have not yet seen widespread rape used in prison under this King, we saw a lot of it in the 1990’s, under the previous King… but the problem is the security institute, people working there are from different countries. They’re not afraid of being sued or taken to court. It’s a very worrying situation.”

At least 34 detainees are nurses and doctors from the country’s largest hospital, Salmaniya.

Physicians for Human Rights, a US based watchdog alleges “systematic and targeted attacks against medical personnel, as a result of their efforts to provide unbiased care for wounded protesters.”

The deputy director of PHR, Richard Sollow, says “unfortunately, these incidents aren’t isolated. They seem to be part of a systematic attack on doctors in Bahrain.”

Bahrain’s Government rejects the allegations, arguing many doctors and nurses failed in their duties and impeded patients from getting medical help during the unrest. Government supporters go further, saying these medical professionals ought to be arrested for politicising the hospital and allowing it to become a rallying point for anti government protesters. They even accuse nurses and doctors of refusing to treat Sunni patients.

Receiving medical help in Bahrain is now too dangerous if you have wounds or the tell tale signs of anti riot fire. Free medical advice is now being offered on the internet, through Skype.

Changing Society

Unable to produce reform, the state of fear is pushing moderate Shia Bahraini’s away from political parties like the secular Waad or the Shia al Wefaq and towards more extreme groups, such as the banned Shia party Al Haq.

“Wefaq lost popularity and legitimacy with the Shia, they see it as too willing to compromise with the regime, to accept. Now people are looking elsewhere for options and al Haq is the most obvious choice,” says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre.

Rajab agrees the turmoil is causing a shift, “it won’t take long to see extremism born, because we’ve been peaceful and yet we are losing our lives. While the whole world was silent, kids were detained and killed in the street. Peaceful means are not functioning.”

The call throughout Bahrain’s protest movement was ‘No Shia, no Sunni, only Bahraini.’ They were adamant reform would help all. The Island’s Shia’s majority complained they were prevented access to high ranking posts and discriminated against in Government jobs. They were also angry about the Government’s policy of recruiting foreign nationals, from mostly Sunni countries to serve in the police force and military, while they remained unemployed. Their anger was not directed at their Sunni country men, but at the Government. Aside from arrest, many Shia activists are now subject to death threats, intimidation and barrages of vile abuse. An unknown number of Shia mosques have been destroyed too, apparently symbols of the enemy.

“There is no hope for reform in the system, so they have to look outside the system. There is serious polarization now, the Shia and Sunni are at opposite ends of the debate,” says Hamid.

The consequence, one man says, is a torn society. Others are more optimistic about the fate of the Island kingdom.

“It’s been a dark time in Bahrain, but with time I think it will be back to normal. There is a bit of tension between Sunni and Shia, but the majority are living with peace between them,” says Mohammed Janahi a radio DJ, who fully supports the Monarchy. His father is Sunni, his mother is Shia.

Janahi says everybody supported reform, but the movement was hijacked by people with hidden agendas.

“The King and the Crown Prince tried to politically solve the issue and offered unconditional dialogue to the so called pro-reformists and even released prisoners… so what happened after that? Did the opposition accept the dialogue? No, they didn’t, they changed all the reform slogans to death chants against the leadership, slogans of hate and sectarianism .”

Janahi says the voices of people like him were drowned out, replaced by more radical ones, “We were part of the National Unity gathering, we demanded reform but not like they did, we said yes to dialogue, but not to an Islamic Republic.” And that is what many Sunni Bahrainis fear the Shia really want.


Bahraini’s have been looking for moral support from the international community. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton has condemned the crackdown on numerous occasions, including during a meeting with Bahrain’s King Hamad in Abu Dhabi in April. Ashton told reporters, “We discussed the importance of meaningful dialogue, meeting the aspirations of the people of Bahrain and… the respect of human rights.”

There are mixed messages out of Britain – the Crown Prince was invited to the Royal Wedding, but uninvited. All the while, British Foreign Secretary William Hague raised red flags over the Government’s crackdown “…there continue to be many credible reports of human rights abuses. The arrests of opposition figures, the reports of deaths in custody, allegations of torture and the denial of medical treatment, are extremely troubling.”

But the signal out of Washington has infuriated activists. The Obama administration, while sending out the occasional message of ‘concern’ for the situation there, has been virtually silent, particularly as arrests and allegations of torture intensified.

“The US’s reaction has been very disappointing. The US doesn’t want to see the regime fall, it doesn’t support full democracy in Bahrain, because that would mean Bahrain would have a Shia Prime Minister, who would probably open up ties with Iran. Not because the Shia are pro Iran, but in terms of development and interest, that’s what countries do,” says Hamid.

The US’s interests in Bahrain are well known, it’s home to the US Naval Fifth fleet, part of a tool to counter Iran’s regional influence. It receives millions of dollars in US funding each year to buy military hardware and services. It’s a key post for Saudi Arabia too.

“US officials talk of Iranian meddling, but there is much more meddling happening and that is Saudi meddling,” says Hamid.

Rajab and others like him, say human rights abuses will continue as long as the US continues to support the government, “The US has proven to be an obstacle, they are complicit. Bahrain’s Government doesn’t need to change as long as its allies continue to support it.”

And where is all this heading? Neither analysts nor activists see a solution as long as reform is not instituted quickly.

“There are no two ways about it, the regime has waged war on its own people,” says Hamid, “it’s a temporary solution to quell the protests but it does not address the grievances of the Shia. Ultimately, this policy is unsustainable.”

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