Al-Bandar Ejection Exposes Bahrain Split

The Associated Press
Monday, October 2, 2006; 5:18 PM

CAIRO, Egypt -- When a former consultant to Bahrain's government accused the island's Sunni rulers of plotting to rig a vote, he was expelled from the country _ but also became something of a cause celebre in the Shiite-Sunni divide.

Salah al-Bandar, a British citizen of Sudanese origin and a Sunni Muslim, worked for Bahrain's Cabinet affairs minister and the government statistics agency before accusing top government officials of a secret plot to "deprive an essential part of the population" _ Shiites _ of their rights.

Al-Bandar issued a bundle of documents to back up his allegations. They included a memo by a top Sunni academic from Iraq calling for Shiites to be "cleansed" from Bahrain and bank statements showing the transfer of large sums from government coffers to anti-Shiite figures.

"Individuals were selected by the Cabinet affairs minister for the purpose of disenfranchising the Shiites and removing them from all circles of influence in all government departments," al-Bandar told the Al-Wasat newspaper.

Al-Bandar maintains he was expelled from Bahrain last month and later accused of treason as punishment for exposing a government plot to rig parliamentary elections in November.

Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf kingdom which hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has a population of 725,000 and is about 60 percent Shiite. The island's government is dominated by a Sunni ruling family _ the only country where a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad in 2003.

Sectarian tension boiled over in Bahrain in the 1990s, when liberal dissidents joined Shiites in violent protests that contributed to wider social unrest and the deaths of 40 people.

In a region where election-rigging is common but rarely talked about under authoritarian regimes, the current scandal in Bahrain has made surprising waves in a country that has had only one parliamentary election in the past 30 years.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have criticized recent government restrictions on free speech and public gatherings as violations of international law.

Opposition parties accuse Bahrain's government of doling out citizenship and voting rights to migrants from other Arab countries as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India to dilute the power of the Shiite majority.

On Friday, thousands of protesters took to the streets west of Bahrain's capital, Manama, to urge the government to stop granting citizenship to migrants ahead of the November elections. A small group of youths clashed with riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and at least two people were injured.

Bahrain's interior minister, Sheik Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, says naturalization has not been accelerated, and that 5,000 immigrants have been granted citizenship since 2004. But independent research done by the Al-Wasat newspaper said more than 30,000 were granted citizenship since 2002, at a rate of 7,500 per year.

At the same time, some Sunnis accuse shadowy "Iranian agents" of buying property in contested electoral districts to tilt the ethnic balance in favor of their Bahraini Shiite brethren. State-run newspapers in Bahrain reported that Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa foiled the plan by freezing real estate deals, and some Sunnis distributed pamphlets calling for Bahrainis of Iranian descent to be deported.

Elections were originally scheduled for May, then postponed indefinitely until a Friday announcement that polls would take place Nov. 25.

© 2006 The Associated Press