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.

Hasan Jamali/AP
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.

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.

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.

“It’s a stupid strategy the government has … [because] in the long run it creates more hatred toward the government,” says Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Mr. Rajab, who has twice been prevented from traveling abroad and questioned by military prosecutors, questioned the possibility of dialogue “without creating the environment for it.”

Unlike past crackdowns, women not spared

The government is tightly restricting visas for international media, making it difficult to report on events in Bahrain. Most people contacted by the Monitor insisted on anonymity because they had been warned of repercussions against themselves and relatives if they spoke with the media.

Bahraini security forces regularly steal money, phones, and other items from homes or cars stopped at checkpoints, says the former detainee, adding: “To them, it’s not stealing because we are Shia and we don’t have the right to live here. It’s a Sunni country and has to remain like this.”

Torture is widely used even against women, and includes beatings while blindfolded, forced standing for many hours, and electric shocks on the cheeks, according to human rights groups and former detainees.

A report issued last week by a group called Justice for Bahrain listed 49 females still held. It noted an interview given to Al Jazeera by a doctor, Farida Al-Dalal, who said that, while in detention, she and others were ordered to dance, and called “dirty Shiites” and “Idiots who do not deserve wearing the white coat.”

Unlike in past crackdowns, women are not being spared his time, human rights activists said. “They want to send a message that no one in this crackdown is protected,” says Mohammed Al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Shiite mosques and medical personnel targeted

In another sign of the government’s apparent intent to demean Shiites, who make up around 60 to 70 percent of the population, it has demolished 43 Shia religious buildings, most of them mosques, according to a government tally. And of the estimated 1,700 to 2,000 workers who were dismissed from their jobs for alleged antigovernment protests, most are Shiites.

On Monday, 48 medical doctors and nurses, most of them still in detention, were arraigned before a military tribunal, with 20 of them charged with felonies and the rest with misdemeanors. Most are Shiites. Their trial will resume June 13.

The doctors were dressed casually, some of them in pajamas, and all had their heads shaved, according to a witness. Their blindfolds and handcuffs were only removed when the session began, and they met their lawyers for the first time at the arraignment.

Rights activist Maskati said that many medical personnel were forced to make false confessions on video, admitting that they stole medical equipment or did unnecessary operations.

One former detainee says interrogators accused some medical personnel of intentionally causing some patients to die because, as they said, “‘the more martyrs you have, the stronger your revolution will be and the more people will be on your side.’”

“They think we want more martyrs. I’s unbelievable,” the former detainee says.

“It’s very depressing and especially because nobody is with us,” the released prisoner says. “We feel we are fighting alone and nobody is standing beside us. Even the United States of America is calling for human rights and calling for democracy all over the world, except for in Bahrain.”

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