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Bahrain campaign to humiliate Shiites goes beyond politics

Bahrain's crown prince is set to visit the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today. The US has remained largely silent amid harsh criticism of Bahrain's brutal crackdown.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / June 7, 2011

Riot police vehicles move, June 1, through the streets of the western Shiite Muslim village of Malkiya, Bahrain. Antigovernment protests were held, and dispersed by riot police, in Malkiya and other Shiite villages nationwide last week as a state of emergency imposed in March was lifted.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Ayat Al Gormezi penned a naughty poem about Bahrain’s prime minister last February, questioning his parentage. In another poem, she imagined a conversation between Bahrain’s king and the devil. Then she read her rhymes in public, which got posted on YouTube in the early days of Bahrain's uprising when the country was electric with hope and excitement.

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But the government quickly turned on pro-democracy protesters like Ms. Gormezi, who was picked up on March 30, two weeks into a brutal, ongoing crackdown.

In the first week of her detention, she was blindfolded, beaten, and forced to stand for hours while her abusers repeatedly played a CD of her YouTube readings, according to people familiar with her case. They forced open her mouth and spat into it. A female officer stuck a toilet bowl brush into her mouth. She was given electric shocks to her cheeks. In graphic language, male security officers described how they were going to rape her, though they never did. She was not allowed to call her family.

Last week, she was charged by a military tribunal with breaching public security by participating in a public gathering, insulting the king, and inciting hatred and contempt for the government.

Al Gormezi’s ordeal and hundreds of others documented by Bahraini and international human rights groups underscore a deeply troubling aspect of the Bahraini government’s policy of repression: Apart from quashing political dissent, the Sunni-led government appears bent on psychologically humiliating the island’s Shiite majority into silent submission.

“The only reason I can see for being detained is that I’m Shia,” says one recently released detainee. “I didn’t do anything.... Basically they are terrorizing us ... financially, psychologically, and physically. It’s war against us. So what are we doing here?”

Bahraini crown prince to visit White House today

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa is scheduled today to visit the White House and meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Regarded as more conciliatory than other members of Bahrain’s ruling royal family, he will no doubt stress the lifting of the state of emergency on June 1, and the recent call by his father, King Hamad Al Khalifa, for renewed political dialogue starting July 1.

It was the crown prince who said on TV at the outset of Bahrain's uprising that citizens had a right to protest. Citizens like Gormezi had been thrilled with the opportunity to publicly speak their minds without fear of retribution. In the country’s biggest demonstrations ever, thousands gathered in the capital's Pearl Roundabout in mid-February to demand political reforms. The Health Ministry sent supplies to the medical tent, treating sick protesters.

Then, in a flash, the government turned on the protesters. An estimated 1,000 Bahrainis have been detained in the ongoing crackdown, many of them subjected to abusive treatment in prison and pseudo-trials in the military justice system. The government has repeatedly denied that detainees are abused and would investigate torture allegations but no one has yet been charged with mistreating prisoners.

Amid signs that Bahrain's continuing crackdown is fueled by sectarian animosities, the Sunni rulers' calls for dialogue ring hollow for many.

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