Protests have been banned in Bahrain and the military has been ordered to tighten its grip after the violent removal of anti-government demonstrators, state TV reports. The army would take every measure necessary to preserve security, the interior ministry said. Three people died and 231 were injured when police broke up the main protest camp, said Bahrain’s health minister. The unrest comes amid a wave of protest in the Middle East and North Africa. Bahrain’s demonstrators want wide-ranging political reforms and had been camped out in the capital, Manama, since Tuesday.US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed Washington’s “deep concern” in a call to the Bahraini foreign minister on Thursday.
Mrs Clinton “urged restraint moving forward. They discussed political and economic reform efforts to respond to the citizens of Bahrain,” a state department official told the BBC. Police action was necessary to pull Bahrain back from the “brink of a sectarian abyss”, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said on Thursday. Bahrain’s Shia Muslim majority has been ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family since the 18th Century. The announcement on state television said the army had taken control of “key parts” of the city. Tanks, army patrols and military checkpoints are out on key streets, with helicopters deployed overhead. Barbed wire has been erected on roads leading to the main protest area, Pearl Square, and the interior ministry has warned people to stay off the streets.
Protesters and opposition politicians expressed outrage at the violence of the crackdown. A leader of the main minority Shia opposition, Abdul Jalil Khalil, said 18 MPs were resigning in protest. Ibrahim Sharif, of Bahrain’s secular Waad party, told the BBC the protests would continue. “We are going to do what’s necessary to change this into a democratic country, even if some of us lose our lives,” he said. “We want a proper, functioning, constitutional democracy.” Mr Sharif said the riot police had moved into Pearl Square at about 0300 (0000 GMT) as people were sleeping.
Bahrain’s security forces are the backbone of the Al Khalifa regime, now facing unprecedented unrest after overnight shootings. But large numbers of their personnel are recruited from other countries, including Jordan, Pakistan and Yemen. Tanks and troops from Saudi Arabia were also reported to have been deployed in support of Bahraini forces. Precise numbers are a closely guarded secret, but in recent years the Manama government has made a concerted effort to recruit non-native Sunni Muslims as part of an attempt to swing the demographic balance against the Shia majority – who make up around 65% of the population of 1 million.
Bahrainis often complain that the riot police and special forces do not speak the local dialect, or in the case of Baluchis from Pakistan, do not speak Arabic at all and are reviled as mercenaries. Officers are typically Bahrainis, Syrians or Jordanians. Iraqi Ba’athists who served in Saddam Hussein’s security forces were recruited after the US-led invasion in 2003. Only the police employs Bahraini Shias. The secret police – the Bahrain national security agency, known in Arabic as the Mukhabarat – has undergone a process of “Bahrainisation” in recent years after being dominated by the British until long after independence in 1971. Ian Henderson, who retired as its director in 1998, is still remembered as the “Butcher of Bahrain” because of his alleged use of torture. A Jordanian official is currently described as the organisation’s “master torturer”.
“Now they recruit young Bahraini Sunnis to open Twitter accounts to give the government point of view in the social media battle,” a local journalist said. The large-scale naturalisation of foreign Sunnis has been described by analysts as a “clear political strategy to alter the country’s demographic balance in order to counter the Shia voting power.” Al-Wifaq, the leading Shia party, has long criticised these “political naturalisations”. The government claims few foreigners are being naturalised, but it has convinced few Bahraini Shias. “This is in part because hardliners grouped around the royal court minister, Khalid bin Ahmad, and cabinet minister, Ahmed bin Atiyatallah, have successfully resisted calls for a transparent naturalisation system,” the US embassy in Manama reported in December 2009, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.
But the chief of public security, Major General Abdul Latif al-Zayani, was praised for blocking his subordinates’ efforts to naturalise the mostly Pakistani special forces company that was due to deploy in support of US troops in Afghanistan. “Zayani reportedly cited the political sensitivity of naturalising Sunni expatriates and wanted to avoid provoking the opposition,” the embassy said. Opposition groups have protested that people chosen for naturalisation are not just Sunnis but religious fundamentalists who have strong anti-Shia feelings.
As a reporter, you sometimes become numbed to sadness. But it is just plain heartbreaking to be in modern, moderate Bahrain today and watch as a critical American ally uses tanks, troops, guns and clubs to crush a peaceful democracy movement and then lie about it. This kind of brutal repression is normally confined to remote and backward nations, but this is Bahrain! An international banking center. An important American naval base, home of the Fifth Fleet. A wealthy and well-educated nation with a large middle class and cosmopolitan values. To be here and see corpses of protesters with gunshot wounds, to hear an eyewitness account of an execution of a handcuffed protester, to interview paramedics who say they were beaten for trying to treat the injured – yes, all that just breaks my heart.
The pro-democracy movement has bubbled for decades in Bahrain, but it found new strength after the overthrow of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Then the Bahrain government attacked the protesters early this week with stunning brutality, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and shotgun pellets at small groups of peaceful, unarmed demonstrators. Two demonstrators were killed (one while walking in a funeral procession), and widespread public outrage gave a huge boost to the democracy movement. King Hamad initially pulled the police back, but early on Thursday morning he sent in the riot police, who went in with guns blazing. Bahrain television has claimed that the protesters were armed with swords and threatening security – that’s preposterous. I was on the roundabout earlier that night and saw many thousands of people, including large numbers of women and children, even babies. Many were asleep.
I was not at the roundabout at the time of the attack, but afterward at the main hospital (one of at least three to receive casualties) I saw the effects. More than 600 people were treated with injuries, overwhelmingly men but including small numbers of women and children. One nurse told me that she was on the roundabout and saw a young man of about 24, handcuffed and then beaten by a group of police. She said she then watched as they executed him at point-blank range with a gun. The nurse told me her name, but I will not use full names of some people in this column to avoid putting them at greater risk. I met one doctor, Sadiq Al-Ekri, who was lying in a hospital bed with a broken nose and injuries to his eyes and almost his entire body. He couldn’t speak to me because he was still unconscious and on oxygen, after what colleagues and his family described as a savage beating by riot police outraged that he was treating people at the roundabout.
Dr. Ekri, a distinguished plastic surgeon, had just returned from a trip to Houston. He identified himself as a physician to the riot police, according to other doctors and family members, based partly on what Dr. Ekri told them before he lost consciousness. But then, they said, the riot police handcuffed him and began beating him with sticks and kicking him, while shouting insults against Shiites. Finally, they pulled down his pants and threatened to rape him, although they abandoned that idea and eventually allowed an ambulance to rescue him. “He went to help people,” said his father, who was at the bedside. “It’s his duty to help people. And then this happened.” Three ambulance drivers or paramedics told me that they had been pulled out of their ambulances and beaten by the police. One, Jameel, whose head was bandaged and his arm was in a cast, told me that police had clubbed him and that a senior officer had then told him: “If I see you again, I’ll kill you.”
A fourth ambulance driver, Osama, was unhurt but said that a military officer – whom he said was a Saudi, based on his accent in Arabic – held a gun to his head and warned him to drive away or be shot. (By many accounts, Saudi tanks and other military forces participated in the attack, but I can’t verify that). The hospital staff told me that ambulance service has now been frozen, with no ambulances going out on calls except with approval of the Interior Ministry. Some of the victims, though not all, said that the riot police shouted anti-Shiite curses when they attacked the protesters, who were overwhelmingly Shiite. Sectarianism is particularly delicate in Bahrain because the Sunni royal family, the Khalifas, presides over a country that is predominately Shiite, and Shiites often complain of discrimination by the government. Hospital corridors were also full of frantic mothers searching desperately for children who had gone missing in the attack.
In the hospital mortuary, I found three corpses with gunshot wounds. One man had much of his head blown off with what mortuary staff said was a gunshot wound. Ahmed Abutaki, a 29-year-old laborer, stood by the body of his 22-year-old brother, Mahmood, who died of a shotgun blast. Ahmed said he blamed King Hamad, and many other protesters at the hospital were also demanding the ouster of the king. I think he has a point: when a king opens fire on his people, he no longer deserves to be ruler. That might be the only way to purge this land of ineffable heartbreak.