News / Middle East

Bahrain Continues Crackdown Behind the Scenes

Thousands chant anti-government slogans as they march during a funeral procession for Sayed Hameed Mahfoodh, 61, whom relatives allege was killed by police, in the western Shiite Muslim village of Saar, Bahrain, April 6, 2011
Thousands chant anti-government slogans as they march during a funeral procession for Sayed Hameed Mahfoodh, 61, whom relatives allege was killed by police, in the western Shiite Muslim village of Saar, Bahrain, April 6, 2011
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Authorities in Bahrain are carrying out a continued crackdown against opposition supporters. Human rights groups report nightly raids in residential areas, violence at checkpoints and arbitrary arrests. Many say a lack of widespread international condemnation is partly to blame for the situation as much of the world focuses on other regional conflicts.

The calls for regime change that have been echoing through the Middle East have been silenced in Bahrain after Gulf military forces were called in to help quell protests that began in mid-February and brought the island kingdom to a standstill.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa declared stability had returned, but most analysts, like Sa'id Boumedouha from Amnesty International, say there is a dark side to the country’s re-established order.

"Definitely, the situation now, from a human rights perspective, is much worse than before the protests started," said Boumedouha.

Human rights officials say Bahraini authorities have detained hundreds of opposition supporters, with some reportedly being tortured, as the government appears to be targeting anyone who actively participated in the pro-democracy demonstrations.

At least 27 people, including three police officers, have been killed since protesting began. Boumedouha said dozens of other people are reported missing and feared dead.

"There is this climate of fear now. You can’t talk to people. People are very worried about their future, about their safety and I’ve heard that there are people in hiding, so it is extremely worrying."

Authorities detained Nabeel Rajab, the president of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights and outspoken critic of the government, on March 20.

"They handcuffed me in my bedroom as my eight-year-old daughter woke up seeing 25 masked men with rifles and machine guns in their hands," he said. "They took me inside a car and they tortured me and beat me inside the car. Then they took me to the interrogation department, they asked me stupid questions, then they sent me back home."

Rajab said Bahraini companies have fired hundreds of employees who went on strike to support the opposition movement. He also said since a three-month state of emergency was declared on March 15, freedom of expression in the country has come under attack.

A prominent pro-democracy blogger was arrested recently - and released shortly afterwards - and three top editors of a Bahraini newspaper critical of the government were fired on Sunday.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, spokesperson for the Information Affairs Authority, Maysoon Sabkar, said the government decided to take action against the al-Wasat  newspaper only after it was found publishing false information that threatened to "escalate the crisis" in the country.

"The Information Affairs Authority, based on the violations found, has filed a cased based on Law 47/2002 on regulating press, printing and publishing," said Sabkar. "The public prosecution is currently taking the necessary legal measures."

Analysts say the conflict in Bahrain is increasingly dividing the country along sectarian lines. Most of Bahrain’s protesters have been Shi’ite Muslims, who are said to represent about two-thirds of the population, but claim they are treated like second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni minority.

Last week, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed al-Khalifa rejected claims that the government had launched a campaign targeting Shi’ites, insisting authorities were only doing what was necessary to ensure law and order.

However, a Bahraini national who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons said Shi’ites are routinely pulled aside at checkpoints across the country. "If there is any name [that is] Shi’ite, not Sunni, here they stop you on the side of the road and they will give you a lot of questions. They will ask you, 'Do you love the king? Do you love the prime minister?' If you will not say that [you do] then they will start to beat you."

Bahrain’s rulers have repeatedly suggested that Shi’ite-dominated Iran has had a hand in orchestrating the nation’s uprising to extend its influence in the region. A number of Iranian officials have voiced support for Bahraini protesters, but protest leaders claim to have no links to Tehran.

Senior spokesman of the al-Wefaq opposition group, Khalil al-Marzooq, said the Bahraini government is using the Iran card to undermine the opposition’s genuine demands of a more representative government.

"We want to have a fully authorized parliament and we have to have an elected government. There is nothing wrong to continue demanding it. We’ve said it clearly: no way for a religious state, we want a civilian state. We want everybody to feel secure and comfortable with the system."

A major concern among human rights campaigners continues to be the military’s occupation of Bahrain's main hospital.

Security forces stormed the Salmaniya Medical Complex on March 16. Witnesses say injured protesters were signaled out, with some being detained and taken away without explanation. One man was later found dead.

At a news conference last month, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa said troops were deployed to Salmaniya to help liberate the hospital after it was paralyzed by people protesting there.

"Who blocked the hospitals? It’s not the government or the army. The army opened the hospital of Salmaniya because we have clear evidence and many cases to show how people were denied access to Salmaniya Hospital and how Salmaniya Hospital became a source of misinformation."

A nurse at the hospital, who asked not to be named, said the military occupation is costing lives. She is calling on the United States and other world powers to take notice. "Tell Obama this is our message. Where is he now? We want to see him and we want him to take one step for us. We are dying here."

Al-Wefaq spokesman Khalil al-Marzooq said that without outside intervention, the situation in Bahrain is unlikely to change. "Without the international interference in terms of forcing the authorities here to stop killing, to stop these atrocities, to stop all the violations to human rights, I don’t see a positive political solution coming."

Critics suspect many nations have been reluctant to take a firm stance on Bahrain because of the nation’s strategic importance as a Western ally in the oil-producing Persian Gulf region. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

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