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Bahrain's calculated campaign of intimidation

Bahraini activists and locals describe midnight arrests, disappearances, beatings at checkpoints, and denial of medical care – all aimed at deflating the country's pro-democracy protest movement.

By Correspondent / April 1, 2011

In this photo taken during a visit organized by Bahrain's Interior Ministry, Bahrain police check a driver's identification at a checkpoint in the capital of Manama, Bahrain, on March 28.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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Manama, Bahrain

With a wave of midnight arrests, checkpoints, and targeting of wounded protesters, Bahrain's Sunni rulers have launched what appears to be a calculated campaign to intimidate supporters of the pro-democracy protest movement that began here in February.

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Security forces have directed much of the abuse – which includes midnight arrests, checkpoints, and targeting of wounded protesters – toward Bahrain’s majority Shiite population, instilling fear and raising sectarian tensions in the tiny kingdom.

“I don’t want to go anywhere now. I’ll stay in my home because there is no safety,” says Ibrahim, a university student who says he was recently beaten and held for 36 hours at a checkpoint, and has a deformed left ear and bruises elsewhere to prove it. He asked that his last name be withheld for his own safety.

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“While they were beating us, they said, ‘Where is your Mahdi now? Why isn’t he coming to save you?’ ” says Ibrahim, referring to a messianic figure in Shiite Islam. “They made us scream 'Mahdi.' They put my face in the ground, and told me to speak. Then they kicked dust in my mouth.”

What was their crime?

“We are Shiite,” says Ibrahim. “They want to remove all Shia from Bahrain.”

In a speech to parliament Tuesday, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed al-Khalifa said the authorities were not targeting Shiites, but were imposing law and order. Bahrain is operating under emergency law, put in place last month.

"The measures are not imposed against any religious sect as some have said, but rather they are used against those who have broken the law," he said, according to the state news agency. " We are not trying to spread evil, but good, and outlaws will meet justice."

More than 300 arrested, dozens missing

Every day, people like Ibrahim are stopped and abused – and sometimes disappear – at checkpoints. The number of arrested is now more than 300 and rising as midnight police raids on homes have become a nightly occurrence. Dozens are also missing. And as security forces systematically target protesters in hospitals, many wounded people are staying at home, rather than risking arrest or abuse while seeking treatment at a hospital.

Activists say it’s a systematic attempt to cow the protest movement that was inspired by Egypt and Tunisia’s recent success. In some ways, the campaign is working. Protests held today in mainly Shiite villages were small – nothing like the huge crowds that were present in the capital Manama before police violently cleared them last month. Protesters now know that they face lethal force if they demonstrate.

Bahrain’s rulers are committing such abuses largely without international attention, as Western powers focus on Libya and venture few comments on Bahrain’s violent crackdown and campaign of fear because of their strategic interests. Bahrain is host to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and other bases central to the American military presence in the Persian Gulf.

“We feel like hostages,” says Iman, a young mother who was active in the early protests, but now rarely leaves her village. “I fear what my children would see if we were stopped at a checkpoint.”

Beatings at checkpoint

Bahrain’s uprising began Feb. 14, calling for a new constitution and a more representative government. It was led by Shiites, who make up a majority of the population in Bahrain, and the kingdom’s rulers have attempted to portray the movement as sectarian and a foreign plot – a veiled reference to Shiite Iran. They called in troops from neighboring Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, to help put down the movement last month. Twenty-five people have been killed so far.

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