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.