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In Bahrain, government crackdown hits middle-class Shiites hard

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MANAMA, Bahrain — A government crackdown on the Shiite-dominated political opposition is reaching deep into Bahrain’s middle-class professions, according to local political leaders and human rights activists, potentially threatening the country’s long-term stability.

Doctors, businessmen, engineers, academics, teachers and now journalists have all been targeted for questioning and detention, observers say, with hundreds arrested and hundreds more fired.

The repression extends beyond political leaders and activists associated with the largely Shiite-led demonstrations that began Feb. 14. Family members and associates of people detained say that the government is targeting Shiites indiscriminately, regardless of their political activity, and with a particular focus on doctors and educators.

“It is retribution,” said one prominent opposition figure, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest. “But it is also an ethnic cleansing of top professions.”

One political leader estimated that as many as 1,200 people have been fired in recent weeks. A representative of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, which represents workers from across the economy, including well-paid banking, oil and industrial workers, said his organization had documented 920 politically driven dismissals. He added that the number is probably higher, given that many workers represented by the group are afraid to come forward.

Human rights activists say that teachers have been handcuffed in front of their students, office workers arrested and doctors taken from their homes at night and detained without charges. In many cases, the whereabouts of the detained are not known, and lawyers have no access to them.

A government spokeswoman denied claims of political retribution.

“Any arrests were done because they weren’t following their rightful duties,” said Luma E. Bashmi of Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority.

Physicians for Human Rights, a Cambridge, Mass.-based watchdog group, issued a report Friday alleging “systematic and targeted attacks against medical personnel, as a result of their efforts to provide unbiased care for wounded protesters.” The organization has documented 32 medical professionals under arrest.

Friends of one missing doctor, Sadiq Abdulla, a vascular surgeon and transplant specialist, say he was not involved in politics or the protests. Kevin Burnand, an English surgeon who trained Abdulla, described him as apolitical.

“Sadiq has been persecuted because he has treated (as any doctor would) injured patients, many of whom happened to be protesters,” said Burnand, in an e-mail.

Doctors’ fear

Local political observers report that the medical profession has been particularly hard hit, creating a climate of fear among both doctors and patients. Military checkpoints and soldiers at the country’s main hospital have terrified staff and patients, some of who have been tortured, according to Richard Sollom, author of the Physicians for Human Rights report. One local activist said that he was shuttling Western doctors between private homes as they attempted to reach patients too scared to seek treatment in public facilities.

Government-affiliated publications this week have reported investigations into professional organizations aimed at rooting out “subversive activities.” The pro-government Daily Tribune said a fact-finding committee had recommended the immediate termination of 111 teachers and other school employees. The newspaper also accused a leading teachers organization of “politicizing our schools.”

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists confirmed that two journalists and an employee of the Health Ministry’s media section were detained Wednesday. Both journalists were released, but the ministry worker remained in custody, the CPJ said.

At least four people have died in police custody, according to human rights groups, since a crackdown against the demonstrations began when troops from Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain on March 14. The Gulf Cooperation Council forces were invited by the Bahraini government to keep order, and a day later martial law was declared.

The government is now focused on stability, with armored cars enforcing a nightly curfew. It is also sponsoring a loyalty campaign in which citizens are encouraged to pledge allegiance to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his government. The campaign said it gathered 500,000 signatures in this country of 1.2 million people, divided between a Sunni minority that largely supports the government and a Shiite majority — making up as much as 70 percent of the population — that has long sought greater political representation and economic opportunity.

Moderation slips away

The targeting of more educated and prosperous members of the Shiite community is particularly worrisome, say local analysts, who fear it could remove a moderating element in political life.

“By attacking the higher-educated class, you try to silence everybody, but this is very, very costly,” said Abdul-Jalil Khalil, of al-Wefaq, the country’s main Shiite party. “You will deepen the problem, and make it even more complicated.”

Like their Sunni neighbors, many wealthier Shiites have enjoyed lives of relative ease in this land of high-end shopping malls, restaurants and luxury homes. But after joining in the February protests with poorer Shiites, who have generally borne the brunt of discrimination and government disfavor, even middle-class Shiites are now subject to the full force of the government’s ire, according to opposition leaders.

Even those summoned only for interrogation describe an Orwellian experience. Government agents demand they identify colleagues and friends from pictures taken during the protests, according to people who have been questioned and released. Interrogations can continue for hours, or days. Threats and insults are common. One woman said she saw signs of physical abuse in other detainees and was required to sign testimony without being able to read it. Journalists have been compelled to sign pledges that they will not write aboutpolitical subjects.

Nabeel Rajab, one of the few Bahraini human rights activists still willing to speak publicly, said he fears the government crackdown will “push the country toward civil war.” The tensions that erupted in February, he says, are only being exacerbated by the heavy-handed government response.

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