Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Saturday, 19 February 2011

The other face of Bahrain

By Bill Law
BBC News, Bahrain

Funeral of one of the protesters killed in Manama
Four people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes with security forces

The violent suppression of protesters in Bahrain has shown people at home and abroad a different side to the country.

"They don't know their own people," Zaina says. "They don't trust their own people." And then she starts to cry.

It is a few hours after Bahraini security forces attacked thousands of pro-democracy activists who were camped out at Pearl Square, in the capital city Manama in the early hours of Thursday morning.

For years the kingdom has been able to project an image in the West of a progressive country

"They charged without warning. They fired teargas and rubber bullets. They used shotguns on people at close-range.

"They were families, women and children," she said. "Sleeping. How can this have happened in my country, in Bahrain?"


Just a day after the king had gone on television to express his condolences for two demonstrators killed earlier in the week and promising an investigation, Bahrainis and the world saw the other face of this tiny, prosperous island kingdom.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa
King Hamad came to power in 1999

The al-Khalifa ruling family is Sunni and the majority of Bahrain's indigenous population are Shia.

The Shia have long complained of high levels of unemployment. They are denied jobs in the key ministries like defence and security.

They wait years for housing.

Protests by Shia activists, angered by discrimination, have long been a fixture here but the protests give the government the opportunity to lay blame for unrest at the door of Shia Iran just across the Gulf. And to target human rights activists and members of the opposition.

For years the kingdom has been able to project an image in the West of a progressive country, moving in thoughtful stages toward an inclusive democracy.

But the reality on the ground tells another story.

Night-time raids

Increasingly the ruling family has turned to repression to thwart challenges to its power.

In August of last year, members of the National Security Apparatus - Bahrain's security police - launched night-time raids and arrested 23 prominent Shia including professionals, religious figures and human rights activists.

For four days in December, my BBC colleague and I were shadowed constantly by security

They have been charged with setting up and funding a terror organisation.

There are accusations that confessions were extracted under torture, a charge which the government continues to deny.

Hundreds of other Shia men and boys were rounded up and remain in jail.

I spoke to two boys, both Shia, who said they had been picked up on the outskirts of Manama, taken to a hidden location, stripped, beaten, threatened with rape and then dumped several hours later on a beach.

Their tormentors accused them of being rioters. The boys told me their only crime was that they were Shia.

That was in October.


A human-rights activist said their case was not isolated. He cited dozens of other victims whose families had come to his organisation with similar stories.

Map of Bahrain

And in the months that followed, the intensity of surveillance by security forces continued to increase.

I have seen it myself.

For four days in December, my BBC colleague and I were shadowed constantly by security.

We were followed on foot and in cars - sometimes three or four cars at a time - everywhere we went.

Young thugs in designer T-shirts, sunglasses and baseball caps. They made no attempt to conceal what they were up to.

They wanted to intimidate us and, more importantly, to intimidate the people we were interviewing.

These men are Sunni. They come from Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan. They are hired by the government, fast-tracked to citizenship.

These are the kind of people who are now beating up Bahrainis.

One demonstrator told me: "Some of them don't even speak Arabic. They don't respect the flag. They don't respect the people. They answer only to their paymasters."

The fact that these men are brought in makes it easier for them to do their job.

There are no local connections, no tribal loyalties. They can carry out their work with impunity.

No criticism allowed

The attack on the demonstrators at Pearl Square, I was told, could only have happened with the full knowledge and approval of senior members of the royal family, certainly the king's uncle - the prime minister - but probably the king himself.

"It is like the madness of King George," Zaina says. "How can he offer condolences one day and the next let a massacre happen?"

Zaina is a professional woman, a Sunni with a young family.

In the past, she has accepted some of the limits the ruling family has placed on its people, for example no open criticism of the al-Khalifas who head all the important ministries.

That seemed a trade-off worth accepting.

She believed that the country was moving toward democracy and that the king, when he spoke of reform, really meant what he said.

Now all of that is blown away in the tear gas, the rubber bullets and the shotgun blasts of Pearl Square.

She says: "Look what they have done to my beautiful Bahrain."

The al-Khalifas have played their hand and, in doing so, the family has revealed the face it has worked so assiduously to conceal from the West.

But as the arrests and the crackdown continue, what Zaina and many Bahrainis are asking is what will America and Britain do now?

Which Bahrain will the West choose to respond to?

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