Bahrain is seeking to stage the Formula One motor race, whose organizers meet today in Barcelona to decide where it will take place, despite police arresting and abusing a quarter of the local staff of the event. The race was postponed in February because of pro-democracy protests and the government is eager to have it rescheduled in Bahrain later this year to show that life in the island kingdom is returning to normal.
In the run up to the decision on Formula One police patrols have sought to prevent any demonstrations and controversial trials of pro-democracy protesters have been postponed. Ayat al-Gormezi, the 20-year-old girl poet, who was to be tried by a military tribunal on a charge of stirring up hatred and insulting the king, has had her trial put off until June 6.
Of the 108 local staff of the government-owned Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), which hosts Formula One, some 28 were detained and mistreated according to a source in Bahrain close to the event. All of those arrested are Shia and have since been sacked. Five of these are still in prison including the chief financial officer Jaafar Almansoor, an employee of BIC told Reuters news agency.
“They made us beat and kick each other,” said the employee, who did not want to be named, describing their 20 days in detention. “They said they’d rape us. They tried to touch you in various places to make you think it’s going to happen.” The prisoners were insulted for being Shia and, on being released, were told not to talk to the media.
Nobody, however prominent in business or otherwise appears safe from arbitrary arrest. Ghazi Farhan, an executive in a property company who also owns three restaurants and a riding stable, was arrested in his office car park on 12 April by plain clothes police and since then has only had two brief telephone conversations with his family. His wife, Ala’a Shehabi, has been prevented from leaving Bahrain despite repeated representations by the Foreign Office.
Details of mistreatment of women in custody are often difficult to obtain because victims of abuse are ashamed to admit they were threatened with rape or otherwise humiliated. One of the most graphic, which also illustrates the Bahraini authorities’ wish to intimidate journalists, comes from Nazeeha Saeed, the Bahraini correspondent of France 24 television and Radio Monte Carlo in testimony given to Reporters Without Borders.
“Summoned to a police station on 22 May Nazeeha was accused by a female officer of ‘lying’ in her reports and having links to the Lebanese Shia Hezbullah TV station al-Manar and the Iranian Arabic station Al-Alam. She was grabbed by the jaw, slapped, punched and kicked by four police women, one of whom screamed ‘Your must tell the truth.’ Another took off her shoe and forced it into Nazeeha’s mouth saying “you are worth less than this shoe.”
She was then dragged to another office and forced to kneel on a chair, facing the back of the chair, exposing her back and the soles of her feet which were beaten with flexible black plastic tubing. She was accused of lying and ‘harming Bahrain’s image’.
During a later interrogation session Nazeeha was blindfolded and told to bray like a donkey and walk like an animal. She was beaten again. At this point one police woman held a plastic bottle against her mouth and shouted ‘drink, it’s urine.’ Nazeeha knocked the bottle aside and it fell to the floor but the police woman picked it up and poured what was left in the bottle on her face. She says she is not certain the liquid was urine but it stung her skin.
After a further round of beating, she was sent back to wait in a room with other women. They were allowed to go to the toilet and brought food. Later the head of the police station asked to see Nazeeha and, claiming not to know that she had been interrogated, allowed her to phone her mother and go home.”
How to explain the ferocity of the Bahraini al-Khalifa royal family’s assault on the majority of its own people? Despite an end to martial law, the security forces show no signs of ceasing to beat detainees to the point of death, threaten schoolgirls with rape and force women to drink bottles of urine.
The systematic use of torture in Bahrain has all the demented savagery of the European witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries. In both cases, interrogators wanted to give substance to imagined conspiracies by extracting forced confessions. In Europe, innocent women were forced to confess to witchcraft, while in Bahrain the aim of the torturers is to get their victims to admit to seeking to overthrow the government. Often they are accused of having treasonous links with Iran, something for which the New York-based Human Rights Watch says there is “zero evidence”.
A simpler motive for the across-the-board repression of the Shia, who make up 70 per cent of the Arab population of Bahrain, is that it is a crude assertion of power by the Sunni ruling class backed by Saudi Arabia. The aim is simply to terrorize the Shia into never again demanding civil and political rights as they did during peaceful demonstrations which started on February 14 in emulation of protests in Egypt and Tunisia.
The tragedy of Bahrain is that none of the present toxic developments were necessary even from the egocentric point of view of the al-Khalifas. Of all the uprisings which have taken place during the Arab Spring, Bahrain had the most ingredients for compromise between protesters and the powers-that-be. The demand of the main opposition was not an end to the monarchy, but greater democracy, less discrimination and an end to the policy of naturalizing Sunni immigrants in a bid to change the demographic balance against the Shia.
In practical political terms a deal between government and opposition would have required the king to dismiss his prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has held his job for 40 years and is famous for his vast wealth and extensive ownership of property in Bahrain.
It never happened. Instead the al-Khalifas panicked, probably thinking they would be the next regime to go down after Tunisia and Egypt. The US, despite having its Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, suddenly appeared to be a shaky supporter. Saudi Arabia and the monarchs of the Gulf wanted what they saw as a Shia uprising crushed.
The government played the sectarian card, portraying the Bahraini Shia as pawns of Iran and frightening the Sunni minority on the island. It bulldozed Shia mosques and prayer houses. Attending the most peaceful pro-democracy rally before the crack down started on March 15 was portrayed as treason and those that had not demonstrated have been forced to confess that they did.
In the short term, the al-Khalifas’ strategy has worked and the opposition is cowed, but the price may be permanent hatred of the majority of Bahrainis for the monarchy. The regime may try to change the demographic balance by driving thousands of Shia from the island by intimidation and firing. Inevitably it will have to rely on Saudi Arabia to an even greater degree than in the past, making the island little more than a Saudi protectorate.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.