“Let us drown the revolution in Jewish blood,” was the slogan of the Tsars when they orchestrated pogroms against Jews across Russia in the years before World War1.
The battle-cry of the al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain ever since they started to crush the pro-democracy protests in the island kingdom two months ago might well be “to drown the revolution in Shia blood.” Just as the Tsars once used Cossacks to kill and torture Jews and burn their synagogues, so Bahrain’s minority Sunni regime sends on its black-masked security forces night after night to terrorize the majority Shia population for demanding equal political and civil rights.
Usually troops and police make their raids on Shia districts at 1-4 am, dragging people from their beds and beating them in front of their families. Those detained face mistreatment and torture in prison. One pro-democracy activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, brought before a military court last week with severe facial injuries said he had suffered four fractures to the left side of his face, including a broken jaw that required four hours surgery.
The suppression of the protesters came after Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council ? also known as the ‘kings’ club’ of six Gulf monarchs — sent 1,500 troops to Bahrain to aid repression which began on March 15. It soon became clear that the government is engaged in a savage onslaught on the entire Shia community ? some 70 per cent of the population ? in Bahrain.
First came a wave of arrests with about 1,000 people detained, of whom the government claims some 300 have been released, though it will not give figures for those still under arrest. Many say they were tortured and, where photographs of those who died under interrogation are available, they show clear marks of beating and whipping. There is no sign yet that King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa’s declaration that martial law will end on 1 June is anything more than a propaganda exercise to convince the outside world, and foreign business in particular, that Bahrain is returning to normal.
Repression is across the board. Sometimes the masked security men who raid Shia villages at night also bulldoze Shia mosques and religious meeting places. At least 27 of these have so far been wrecked or destroyed, while anti-Shia and pro-government graffiti is often sprayed on walls that survive.
The government is scarcely seeking to conceal the sectarian nature of its repression. Defending the destruction of Shia mosques and husseiniyahs (religious meeting houses) it claims that they were constructed without building permission, but critics point out that one that was demolished was 400 years old. Nor is it likely that the government has been seized with a sudden enthusiasm for enforcing building regulations since the middle of March.
The government is determined to destroy all physical rallying points for the protesters. One of the first such places to be destroyed was the Pearl Square monument, an elegant structure commemorating the pearl fishers of the Gulf, which was bulldozed soon after the square had been cleared of demonstrators. A measure of the government’s paranoia is that it has now withdrawn its own half-dinar coins showing the Pearl Square monument.
Facing little criticism from the US, otherwise so concerned about human rights abuses in Libya, the al-Khalifa family is ruthlessly crushing opposition at every level. Nurses and doctors in a health system largely run by Shia have been beaten and arrested for treating protesters. Teachers and students are being detained. Some 1,000 professional people have been sacked and have lost their pensions. The one opposition newspaper has been closed. Bahraini students who joined protests abroad have had their funding withdrawn.
The original February 14 protest movement was moderate, contained Sunni as well as Shia activists, and went out of its way to be non-sectarian. Its slogans included a demand that Bahrain’s powerful prime minister for the last 40 years, Shaikh Khalifa ibn Salman al-Khalifa, to step down and for fair elections. It also wanted equal rights for all including an end to anti-Shia discrimination under which the majority were excluded from the 60,000-strong army, police and security forces. Security jobs went instead to Sunni recruits from Pakistan, Jordan, Syria and other Sunni states who were immediately given Bahraini citizenship.
Sometimes the anti-Shia bias is explicit. One pro-government newspaper prominently published a letter that compared the protesters to “termites” that are intelligent but multiply at alarming speed and “are very similar to the February 14 group that tried to destroy our beautiful, precious country.” The writer recommends exterminating the “white ants so they don’t come back.”
The purpose of the systematic torture and mistreatment inflicted on the detainees is firstly to create a feeling of terror in the civilian population. It is not only protesters or pro-democracy activists that are being targeted. Al-Jazeera satellite television, based in and funded by neighboring Qatar, which played such a role in publicizing protests and their attempted repression, in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya, was initially much more reticent about events in Bahrain. But al-Jazeera revealed this week that the Bahraini police has been raiding girls’ schools, detaining and beating school girls, and is accused of threatening to rape them.
One 16-year-old called “Heba” was taken with three of her school friends and held for three days during which they were beaten. She said an officer “hit me on the head and I started to bleed” and she was thrown against a wall. She says that, although the girls were beaten severely, they scarcely felt the pain because they were so frightened of being raped. The Bahraini opposition party al Wefaq says that 15 girls’ schools have been raided by the police and girls as young as 12 threatened with rape.
Aside from intimidation there is a further motive for the beatings and torture: This is to extract evidence that, against all appearances, the opposition was planning armed revolt and is manipulated by foreign powers, notably Iran. The aim, in the case of Abdulhadi al-Kawaja, was evidently to beat out of him a confession to the charge that he was attempting to “topple the regime forcibly in collaboration with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country.”
The al-Khalifas are aware that their strongest card in trying to discredit the opposition is to claim it has Iranian links. US embassy cables revealed by Wikileaks show that the Bahrain government has continually making this claim to a sceptical US embassy over the years, but has never provided any evidence. This propaganda claiming Iranian plots is crude, but plays successfully in Sunni Gulf states that see an Iranian hand behind every Shia demand for equal rights and an end to discrimination. It also gets an audience in Washington, conscious that its Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and fearful of anything that might strengthen Iran.
The Bahraini monarchy, having effectively declared war on the majority of its own people, is likely to win in the short term because its opponents are not armed. The cost will be that Bahrain, once deemed more liberal than its neighbours, is turning into the Gulf’s version of Belfast or Beirut when they were convulsed by sectarian hatred.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq