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.

Hasan Jamali/AP
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.

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.

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.

Some, like Ibrahim, say they’re now staying at home because of the danger they might face at checkpoints. He says he was driving with two friends this week in Hamadtown – a mixed area of the capital – when masked soldiers stopped them at a checkpoint, beat them, and then took them away. Their mobile phones and a laptop computer were taken from them, a common occurrence at checkpoints lately.

Describing his experience soon after his release, he says the soldiers took branches from a nearby tree to beat the three youths, hit them with rifle butts, and kicked them in their faces and backs for about 20 minutes. Indeed, Ibrahim’s back is striated with long bruises and abrasions, and his arm is deeply bruised. His soft-spoken friend Khadim, who was also in the car, also displays a bruised back and a swollen face.

The friends were blindfolded, handcuffed, and taken to a police station, where they were held for about 36 hours. They were not allowed to notify their families, and were kept handcuffed the entire time, they say.

As Ibrahim describes the ordeal, he is interrupted by a phone call from his mother. Though he is just down the street from his home, she’s worried, and wants him to come back. Khadim says the only two members of his family who go outside the neighborhood are his father and brother, and that is only to go to work.

Nightly raids on the rise

Yet unlike Ibrahim and Khadim, many do not even consider home a safe place. Nightly arrest raids have been increasing, and usually involve police breaking down the door in the early hours of the morning.

Youssef, a young man from the Shiite village of Kazarkan, says he has not slept at home for two weeks for fear of being arrested during the middle of the night. And Ali Mohamed, from the largely Shiite village of Nuwaidrat, says his family hides their valuables every night in anticipation of another raid. His father, who is close to an opposition leader who has called for the overthrow of the regime, was arrested more than a week ago at 1 a.m.

His story is similar to dozens of others – security forces kicked down the door without warning, and arrested his father, who was in bed, without allowing him to dress. They forced the rest of the family to face the wall and showered them with Shiite slurs as they arrested Mr. Mohamed’s father. Mohamed says the police took seven mobile phones, one laptop, and three desktop computers. The family has not heard from their father since he was arrested more than a week ago.

And Ibrahim joins a host of others too afraid to go to a hospital to treat wounds. Though he was worried about the injury to his ear, he refused to go to the hospital for fear he would be rearrested there.

Authorities are systematically finding hospital patients whose wounds appear to be protest-related, and forcibly transferring them to hospitals under military control, sometimes beating them, according to Human Rights Watch. HRW researcher Faraz Sanei, who has been documenting such cases in Manama, describes watching security personnel enter the room of a severely wounded patient who had been shot by police with birdshot and was in a private hospital. The security personnel forced the wounded man from his bed despite his great pain, and took him away in an unmarked car with a police escort, says Mr. Sanei.

In some cases, the government has prevented wounded protesters from getting medical care, according to HRW.

Determined to press on

Yet while some Bahrainis are living in fear, they also say they won’t give up their struggle for their rights. Youssef continues to supply information about events in his village to human rights organizations, and Ibrahim said he will continue to protest.

“What I'm sure is, the people came out, they have goals, they have grievances, they have legitimate demands,” says Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “You can silence them for the short term, but you can’t silence them forever.”

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