Bahrain: Tensions rising despite repression

Issue 
Anti-government protests in Bahrain, February. Photo from Al Jazeera.

Despite appearing calm on the surface, tensions are escalating within Bahrain, which has been the scene of anti-government protests that began on February 14.

There still remains a strong police presence within the country. Armoured tanks and vehicles man the streets and highways. Blockades are on major intersections, forces have set up camp temporarily within the city and are on a state of permanent standby for civil unrest.

The government of Bahrain is still not allowing foreign journalists to enter the country. Some do make it through customs, like myself, but remain on the government radar.

On April 29, thousands of anti-government protesters from the Shia community lined the streets to protest the sentences given to the seven men who are alleged to have killed two police officers in the pro-democracy demonstrations.

The seven men were tried in a military court, the first time in Bahraini history. Four of the men were sentenced to death, the other three were given life sentences.

In a meeting with Bahraini Ambassador Sheik Abdul Aziz on April 29 in Bahrain, he said there have been 27 deaths in total since the “day of rage” anti-government protests on February 14.

A veteran diplomat and foreign policy adviser for the Bahrain government, he has strong ties to the royal family and their foreign allies. Bahrain is a monarchy that has been dominated by the Al Khalifah royal family since the 18th century.

However, Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), said 31 people have been killed in the aftermath of the protests.

Rajab is under threat from the Bahraini government. He has had his home has been raided on numerous occasions, his phone calls intercepted and is banned from leaving the country.

Government officials and human rights activists have opposing views on the current situation, there is one thing they can both agree on — that is there are strong tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities.

In separate meetings with Bahraini MPs from the ministry of interior, ministry of information and the ministry of health, all from the Sunni sect, all expressed the belief that Iran is backing protests by the Shia population in Bahrain.

Sheik Abdul Latif Al Mahmoud, from the National Unity Assembly, said this was the spread “fundamentalist, Islamist ideology within Bahrain, in order to destabilize the whole Gulf region”.

Sheik Abdul Latif Al Mahmoud said the Shia “want to establish Bahrain as a caliphate state whilst maintaining strong ties with Iran and the USA.”

However, Rajab said: “We are in a state of genocide as Shias are being significantly disadvantaged. If the Shia are not protected in Bahrain this could lead to extreme civil unrest, even worse, a civil war.”

Rajab said the National Unity Assembly is run by the Bahraini government. He said it was a “Sunni-led Islamic faction established by the Bahraini royal family”.

Rajab said the demonstrations were led by Bahrain’s Shia population and were “inspired by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria”.

He said the “Shia majority in Bahrain are being targeted by the government in hopes to marginalize the entire population.”

Sheik Aziz, however, said the current situation had elements of sectarian roots and denied that Bahraini policy prevented the Shia population from obtaining high positions in government.

But when asked about why Shias are not allowed to be employed in the army, he said justified the ban by saying: “If you look at footage from years ago, you can see that the same protesters have been present in anti government protests holding up the Hezbollah flags, Iran flags or T shirts with Ayatolla Khomeini on them.

“It's only been within the past two years that these protesters have switched to a less radical form of dress. These protesters have been clever in hiding their radicalist Iran or sectarian roots. Why in Bahrain would we employ these people in our military if they sympathise with Iran or Hezbollah?”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have reported that the Bahraini Government have engaged in “violent crackdowns on Shia protesters” during the demonstrations in February and March.

Sheik Abdul Latif Al-Mahmoud, who leads the National Unity Assembly, said he believed the Western media were not reporting an accurate account of what is happening. He accused them of only covering anti-government protests and ignoring pro-government demonstrations.

Rajab, however, said the accounts of HRW and MSF were accurate. He took the opposite position on the media — saying major news networks internationally were not reporting the struggle for democracy in Bahrain adequately. He said this was partly due to the regime’s ban on foreign journalists.

There have been widespread reports of the Bahrain regime cracking down on hospitals treating opposition protesters. This is denied by supporters of the regime, who claim anti-government protesters were the ones who were violent, including being responsible for attacks on hospitals.

Lulwa Hamad Yusef, a senior general nurse from Al Salminya Hospital who now works for the interior ministry said that on February 17, “protesters had tear gas, knives, swords and were antagonising police”.

She said she received cases of “wounded police officers, five major cases, mostly stab wounds, beatings, fractures, one with their fingers cut off and another with multiple stab wounds to his back and buttocks.”

Doctors from the Al Salminiya hospital said anti-government protesters blocked patients from receiving treatment and doctors from their emergency departments failed to treat patients if they were non-Shia.

Rajab painted a different picture. He has had medical supplies delivered to his home and needs local doctors and nurses to distribute and treat patients too scared to be treated at government hospitals.

However, medical staff have been too scared to visit his home or contact him for fear of being targetted by the government.

Rajab is calling on nurses within the region to get in contact with him to deliver aid to patients seeking urgent medical assistance.

The regime has blocked the website inside Bahrain of Rajab’s BCHR, along with the website for the opposition Al Wefaq party.

Skeik Abdul Aziz from the Ministry of Information stated that the website is only blocked because of “explicit/violent content which is deemed inappropriate for public viewing.” He said that once the videos are taken down, the website will be unblocked.

I was unable to contact members of the Al Wefaq party due to many of them hiding from the Bahraini government.

Comments

@Elizabeth - Firstly, thank you for putting both sides on your report. You are amongst the first to give a fair one which has been found wanting from the very beginning.

Just for your information the statements from Nabeel Rajab needs to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. He has a reputation for being sensationalist and a dramatist. Locally, nobody even takes him seriously and are generally amazed how he has been able to con the international press for so long without being found out. Amongst his many exploits are the "slightly photoshoped pictures" and "the use of oxygen tank".

Most people in Bahrain are actually relieved that we are back to living and getting a life.

Thanks for your comment. I agree, I am finding that the majority of reporters are not providing a balanced view of the situation.

My job is not to take a side, or go in with an agenda. It is merely to report the information I am presented with. From that, a thorough investigation can take place but it will need quite some time to establish the facts and validity of all the information provided.

Elizabeth

Thanks for your comment :)

My job is not to take a side or go in with an agenda. I merely seek to report the information I am provided with and from there a thorough investigation can take place. This could take a while to establish the facts and determine the validity of all the information provided.

Elizabeth