When King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa of Bahrain embarked on political reform in his small kingdom four years ago and offered amnesty to student activists living in exile, Abdul Hadi Khawaja decided it was time to go home.

Khawaja had left his homeland in the early 1980s, spending years in Geneva, Copenhagen and London, where he completed his studies. He had tried to return once before, in 1993 for his father's funeral, but his name remained on a blacklist. He was detained at the airport for 10 days before being deported to Lebanon, he said.

After finally returning to Bahrain in 2001, Khawaja and his colleague, Nabeel Rajab, opened the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in Manama, the capital. After struggling for more than 11 months and with a push from the king, Rajab finally got the government to register the center, which set out to monitor human rights, employment conditions and the treatment of a large expatriate community. But last year, after Khawaja gave a speech criticizing the prime minister, the center was shut down.

Last Sunday, Khawaja was observing a demonstration against the lack of employment opportunities in Bahrain. Riot police beat up about 50 of the demonstrators and briefly detained some of them. According to Rajab, Khawaja was beaten, too.

Rajab, reached by telephone in Bahrain on Wednesday, said that he had been detained for half an hour. "Many of the men taking part in the peaceful protest were badly beaten and bruised by police, and four remain in the hospital. They broke Abdul Hadi's teeth. We had just gone there to observe and make sure no one was hurt," he said.

Bahrain, an archipelago of desert islands between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has recently been praised by the United States for holding elections three years ago and broadening certain liberties. But human rights organizations and activists maintain that much remains to be done in terms of institutionalizing reforms and ending police brutality and torture committed under the guise of maintaining order.

Khawaja's story has had many twists and turns -- exile, detention, amnesty, pardons and brutality. His recent encounters suggest that Bahrain's declared reforms, which are not enshrined in a legal framework, remain selective.

Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have pressed for laws to protect freedoms and democracy in Bahrain, which is in the process of concluding a trade agreement with the United States. The United States also relies on Bahrain for strategic needs, such as the positioning of the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf.

In Bahrain, foreign laborers and domestic workers make up as many as 300,000 of the country's population of 700,000, Rajab said. Last year, the center prepared a report about the maltreatment of Asian domestic workers in the Middle East.

In an interview last month while he was visiting Washington, Khawaja said 40 percent of all suicides in Bahrain were among migrant women who come from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and Ethiopia. According to Rajab, rapes are frequent, but few are reported.

"There is not one case of a Bahraini sentenced because of assault against domestic or other workers, not even one case," Rajab said. "When we take a domestic worker to the police for protection, they put her in jail. When the sponsor comes, they treat her as a criminal."

The center got into hot water last year after organizing seminars and issuing a report that covered discrimination against the country's Shiite majority (70 percent of the population), the status of women, privileges granted to the royal family and corruption. It was during a seminar in September, Khawaja said, that he accused the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Khalifa, of corruption.

"First I was arrested, and two days later, the center was shut down," Khawaja said. He was released after the U.S. government criticized his detention and the monarch personally intervened. Although attorneys for the center have failed to get it reopened, Rajab said, members continue to work underground.

"What happened in Bahrain is not democratization. Maybe there are better conditions for civil liberties and human rights," Khawaja said in the interview. "None of the changes in the constitution have been institutionalized, and the changes are turning the country into an absolute constitutional monarchy. The restrictive press laws are used selectively. In the last two years, many journalists have had to appear in court," he added.

According to Reporters Without Borders, that number has increased from 63 in 2002 to 100 in 2003 and 110 last year. It has reached 140 so far this year.

On May 6, the International Crisis Group cautioned that the application of reforms announced four years ago by the king has been "uneven and appears as simply the royal family institutionalizing its grip on power." The report also said that the government has "virtually done nothing to tackle sectarian discrimination and tensions."

As Bahrain's Shiites feel increasingly marginalized, more radical and confrontational elements appear poised for action. Khawaja and Rajab said only 18 percent of public sector jobs are held by Shiites.

Joe Stork, a Middle East specialist for Human Rights Watch, cautioned: "Given Bahrain's strategic value, Washington may be reluctant to criticize its ally, but a failure to do so could result in growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the kingdom."

Human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, on his knees, was detained by Bahraini police during a protest Sunday. A colleague was among many beaten by police, he said.