WASHINGTON - Bahrain says it arrested members of a terror cell plotting to set off explosions across the country. Manama described the cell as an armed wing of the Shi'ite fringe opposition group Al Wafab, which Bahrain claims has ties to Iran and Hezbollah.
The arrests come amid ongoing protests in Bahrain and across the region over Saudi Arabia's execution Friday of a prominent Shi'ite cleric. Nimr al-Nimr had frequently criticized Bahrain's Sunni rulers for harsh crackdowns on Shi'ite dissent. Shi'ites represent about 70 percent of Bahrain's population.
“We’ve seen numerous protests in many different areas of the country, which have been responded to with a very severe crackdown, the use of excessive force, which of course is also expected from the way the government has been reacting to protests for the past five years,” said Maryam Al-Khawaja, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights and daughter of prominent rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, currently serving life in prison for his role in 2011 uprisings. “And we’ve also seen numerous injuries both from tear gas and pellet shotguns, and we’ve had a number of arrests.”
Khawaja said she is not surprised by recent developments.
Arbitrary arrests alleged
“It’s something that we’ve seen from the Bahraini government over and over again. They keep arresting people and saying that they have uncovered another terrorist plot and then what we find is we get a bunch of people who get arbitrarily arrested, tortured to confess and then given long prison sentences – and they usually have their citizenship revoked as well,” she said, citing several recent arrests, including that of Al Wasat reporter Mahmoud al-Jaziri, accused of supporting terrorism, inciting hatred of the regime and having contacts with a foreign country.
Khawaja says that without evidence, transparency and due process, she has no reason to believe this week’s report about a thwarted bombing campaign.
Salman Al-Jalahma, counselor at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain in Washington, defended his country’s rights record in a written statement to VOA.
“These allegations voiced by opposition members and activists alike must be challenged, as they are outdated and unsubstantiated,” he said. “In fact, in the past 20 months, five officers and one innocent civilian were killed – a 72-year old farmer -- where in contrast, in the same time span, no one has died by actions of the police.”
He said Bahrainis are allowed to express concerns freely, whether in the press, in parliament or in the streets, and police intervene only when protesters threaten “lives or livelihood.”
Bahrain, he continued, has set up independent bodies such as the Ombudsman or the Prisoner and Detainee Rights Commission (PDRC) to investigate citizen complaints.
“This willingness to address legitimate grievances should not be downplayed," he said. "The reports published by the Ombudsman and the PDRC are available online to not only ensure transparency, but to hold the Government accountable to the recommendations put forward by those institutions.”
Iran links unclear
Bahrain has followed Saudi Arabia’s lead and broken ties with Iran and ordered its diplomats to return to Tehran. Saturday, Bahrain’s information ministry invoked criminal law, warning it would do whatever was necessary to safeguard security in the kingdom. Monday, it made good on that promise, arresting prominent physician/activist Saeed Al-Samahiji for tweeting against the executions.
“It would be foolish to think that Iran isn’t enjoying the unrest in Bahrain, but how much it’s instigating it or controlling it is very difficult to judge,” said Brian Dooley, a rights advocate at Human Rights First in Washington.
“Bahrain is a small country. It doesn’t have the security resources that Saudi has, and in fact when there were mass protests in 2011, the Bahraini security forces had to call on the Saudis and the Emiratis to come and supplement their own military,” he said.
Manama has long viewed Tehran as an existential threat – and not without some provocation. Over the centuries, Bahrain has been ruled by Persians, Portuguese and, more recently, the British. During the 20th Century, Iran made repeated attempts to reassert its historic claim over Bahrain. Most recently, in 1981 a Tehran-based group called the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a coup in Manama.
“It would be foolish to think that Iran isn’t enjoying the unrest in Bahrain, but how much it’s instigating it or controlling it is very difficult to judge,” said Dooley.
An independent commission investigating the 2011 unrest concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove Tehran was behind the protests.