Bahrain wages unrelenting crackdown on Shiites

AP News
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Posted: Apr 01, 2011 7:37 AM
Bahrain wages unrelenting crackdown on Shiites

The official line: Bahrain is back to business as usual. Shiite protesters are off the streets after a month of paralyzing demonstrations. A state-run newspaper's headline declares the Persian Gulf island to be "Back on Track."

But police checkpoints dot the highways around the tiny Sunni-led kingdom. Tanks are deployed around the lavish shopping malls in the capital.

And security forces are carrying out nightly raids in the impoverished Shiite villages around Manama, smashing down doors, destroying furniture and spraying graffiti on the walls, residents told The Associated Press.

One Bahraini human rights activist told the AP that he was beaten and hit with shoes by armed, masked men, who threatened him with rape and told to go back to Iran, the Shiite powerhouse across the Gulf.

The relentless crackdown has made major new protests a virtual impossibility for the time being, analysts and Shiite residents say. But the pressure is generating new anger among protesters who had been calling for democratic reform and equal rights for Shiites. Another explosion of unrest in the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet now seems inevitable, they say.

"We cannot stop," said Ali Mohammed, a 33-year-old Shiite teacher fired from his job for participating in demonstrations at Manama's Pearl Square last month. "We might go quite for a bit to mourn the dead and treat the injured and see those in jail, but then we will rise up again."

Allegations of religiously tinged abuse of Shiites are also widening sectarian divisions, increasing the likelihood of Bahrain becoming a flashpoint for tensions between Iran and the Bahraini monarchy's main backer, Saudi Arabia.

The Sunni kings and emirs ruling the Gulf's Arab nations deeply fear that Iran is maneuvering to dominate the region and is using Shiite Arab communities as a tool to do so. Those fears have long focused on Bahrain, where a Sunni minority rule over a Shiite majority in a nation of 700,000 people.

So when Bahrain's Shiites rose up in the capital Manama, demanding political rights, an end to discrimination, an elected government and even the ouster of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbors saw the hand of Iran. Sunni-led Gulf Arab nations boast that they defeated Tehran's plans with a force of 1,500 troops they sent two weeks ago as Hamad imposed emergency law.

Iran's defense minister, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, told state-run TV on Tuesday that the region would turn into "a center for flare-ups, hostility and clashes" if what he called "destabilizing and illegal" moves continue in Bahrain.

Major protests ended on March 16 when soldiers and riot police overran a protest camp in Manama's Pearl Square, but the kingdom is keeping a 10 p.m.-4 a.m. curfew in place in Shiite villages and parts of the capital, using it, activists say, as cover for nighttime raids.

Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Human Rights Center, said his home in the village of Bani Jamra, northwest of Manama, was raided two weeks ago by several dozen masked men with guns who pulled him from his bed in front of his 8-year-old daughter, blindfolded him and took him to a car where he was beaten for nearly two hours.

"They threatened to rape me and one man was touching my body," said Rajab, 47. "They hit me with shoes and punched me with fists. They were insulting me, saying things like, `You're Shiite so go back to Iran.'"

On Wednesday evening, Rajab was being interviewed in his home by a television crew in his home when dozens of men in civilian clothes and black ski masks surrounded them in front of his house, pointing rifles in his face and shouting insults.

Other inhabitants of the Shiite villages ringing the capital reported similar nightly raids by police looking for activists or suspected protesters.

Some showed an AP reporter smashed front doors and broken furniture. One displayed graffiti sprayed on the wall of a home in Bani Jamra reading: "Al Khalifa is a crown on your heads," _ praising the Sunni dynasty that has ruled Bahrain for two centuries.

All military vehicles on the roads and at checkpoints have Bahraini flags. The solders and police manning them wear ski masks, but people who have interacted with them are alleging that they speak in a Saudi dialect.

The Saudi-led force must leave the Gulf island immediately, senior opposition leader Ali Salman said, because "we don't want Bahrain to turn into a conflict zone between Saudi Arabia and Iran."

The United States has urged the monarchy to respect human rights but is saying little about the allegations of ongoing repression.

Bahrain, which has long attempted to position itself as a stable regional magnate for international business, is doing its best to project an image of calm. Front-page headlines in the state-run newspapers read "Return to Normality," "Back On Track" and even "Victory."

But the Shiite opposition-run newspaper is filled with photos of protesters' funerals, lists of missing activists and reports of daily clashes in the villages around the capital.

Five-star hotels are empty and office towers in the downtown financial district are locked. Signs on branches of international banks are "closed until further notice" and even Manama's red light district _ a popular hangout for Saudi tourists _ is deserted.

Not all members of the ruling elite are in denial.

"If I said we're back to normal, I'd be a liar," said Jamal Fakhro, an appointed member of Bahrain's parliament and a Sunni. "Is it calmer? The answer is definitely yes, on the security front. But it's not calm when it comes to people's feelings."

Many Shiites have lost state jobs for taking part in protests and general strikes and 40 students lost scholarships for their role in demonstrations.

Bahrain Human rights organization and opposition groups say at least 20 people have been killed in total, since protests began February 14 and hundreds of activists have been either detained or questioned since martial law went into effect in mid-March. Among those in custody are doctors who treated injured protesters in the state-run Salmaniya hospital, now under control of Bahrain's security forces.

Eyewitnesses said they saw Hani Abdul Aziz Abdullah Jumah, 32, a cleaner and a father of 2-year-old twins being chased by security personnel after clashes broke out March 19 near his home in the Shiite village of Khamis. Then they heard shots being fired, they told Human Rights Watch.

His family said he was wounded by gunfire and taken to a local health clinic in a coma before disappearing. The last time Jumah's family saw him alive was when he was loaded into an ambulance from the Bahraini Defense Force Hospital, accompanied by two masked police officers.

His body was handed over to the family from a different hospital by authorities on March 24.

"When someone leaves home he does not come back," said his father, Abdul-Aziz Abdullah Jumah. "Who is responsible for that? It is the government."

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Associated Press television producer Iain Sullivan contributed to this report.