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“Your remarkable and unflinching efforts have protected the lives of innocent people, restored order and maintained security and stability across Bahrain,” Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa praised security forces on Friday March 25th for bringing life in Bahrain back to “normal.” As he thanked his dedicated forces for “creating conditions that are favorable for a national dialogue,” riot police were being deployed to put down some twenty-five small, peaceful protests that took place across the country on what may be the last Bahraini “day of rage.” One man, 71-year old Issa Mohamed, was killed inside his home due to asphyxiation caused by teargas fumes being used to disperse unarmed protesters outside. Telling of the general mood in large parts of Bahrain, the protesters in one of the demonstrations were chanting: “baltagiyya baltagiyya ya hukuma ya gabiyya” [you are thugs, you are thugs, oh government oh fools].
The Bahraini regime may speak of having “cleansed the streets” and “restored order” all it and its supporters want, but facts on the ground speak a different truth. Innocent citizens and residents of all but a few areas of Bahrain have lived in a state of terror since March 15th, 2011. Far from “protecting people’s lives," police brutality and pro-government thug violence have wreaked havoc on the streets of otherwise peaceful residential neighborhoods. The attendant physical and psychological traumas, as well as material damage to private and public property, have yet to be officially addressed or accounted for. The Bahraini regime’s undercover intelligence services have also continued to unleash an arsenal of intimidation tactics against opposition activists, spokespersons, and supporters. To date, over a hundred Bahrainis have been reported missing, their families left in the dark as to their whereabouts. Several have been released and allowed to return to their loved ones, with a few actually reuniting with their families only at hospital morgues. Several hundred civilians have been severely injured.
Firsthand accounts, documentary photographs, and videos that emerged from the tiny Gulf island have been especially alarming. Images of mutilated, swollen, and bruised bodies have been circulating on the Internet for the last two weeks. The majority of those who have been released from detention tell stories of police brutality, beatings, and torture, their bodies also exhibiting signs of physical abuse, injuries and disfiguration. Nabeel Rajab, President of Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was one among many who have been blindfolded, beaten, and detained.
While the Bahraini regime has systematically targeted members of the opposition, their tactics are also aimed at intimidating members’ families and other potential supporters. Since GCC Peninsula Shield Forces entered Bahrain on March 14th, families of outspoken critics of al-Khalifa have increasingly reported armed officers in civilian clothing raiding their homes in the middle of the night. In many reported incidents, groups of men allegedly from intelligence services force entry into homes by breaking garage doors, gates, and windows. Various accounts describe the men yelling at family members, shoving them, and asking about the whereabouts of their brother(s), father, or son(s). Many activists, writers, and bloggers have gone into hiding in the last two weeks, upon hearing news of opposition members being targeted and detained. They often have little, if any, contact with their families.
Security officers and pro-regime thugs have also targeted the homes of those who have publicly criticized the al-Khalifa. Some, like the home of Munira Fakhro, have been attacked more than once. Intimidation tactics against medical staff have also persisted, despite government claims to the opposite. Police officers and thugs—supposedly guarding the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC)—have been videotaped physically assaulting nurses on hospital grounds. Until March 20th, SMC employees were still reporting security forces intimidating, beating, and detaining some medical doctors and nurses as well as patients inside the hospital building. In some areas, Shi’a protesters who were injured during reprisals by riot police are receiving rudimentary medical care at home because they fear being targeted at hospitals if they were to seek proper medical help. At least one medical facility in a Shi’a neighborhood has been completely demolished in an attempt to prevent protesters from getting medical attention.
State institutions have also been penalizing citizens who have participated in the popular and peaceful protests that started in Bahrain on February 14th, 2011. The Ministry of Education, for example, has suspended the government scholarships of forty of its students registered in universities abroad. According to the MOE, these students “have committed serious illegal and unconstitutional violations” by calling for the fall of the regime and thus, do not merit any state privileges. Bahrain's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has withdrawn the license of a Bahraini telecommunications company founded by opposition leader Ibrahim Sharif. The Bahraini regime has also intensified its war on media that are critical of al-Khalifa and their violent crackdown on protesters. The Bahraini Foreign Ministry, for instance, announced its intention to take legal measures against BBC reporter Caroline Hawley for allegedly “tarnishing the Kingdom’s reputation.” The pro-government Al Bilad newspaper has laid off three of its journalists also for joining the protests and expressing anti-regime views. More recently, Arabsat has accused Bahrain of intercepting its satellite signals after the Bahrain government lodged a complaint to the satellite operator accusing the Iranian “Al Alam” and Hizbollah’s “Al Manar” of breaking the operator’s regulations. And in the last week, the Bahraini regime has issued conflicting information on the positions of the seven opposition groups as well as the labor union calling off its strike, and then reportedly coercing their respective members into endorsing its statements.
In his speech addressed to security forces on Friday, Crown Prince Salman reiterated the King’s resolve to “continue the path of reform” and engage those deemed “true citizens” among his people. The last week’s path to “normalcy” has shown that to be a true Bahraini citizen is to be silent to the al-Khalifa dictatorship’s injustice, government corruption, and failure to reform the constitution and establish the rule of law. Indeed, the ideal atmosphere of dialogue for the Crown Prince is one with partners whose souls, morale, and determination have been crushed. In Salman’s logic, those who have been complacent to and acquiescent beneficiaries of such injustices count as "innocent people" who deserve the state’s protection. Those who do not will continue to face the military power of the Bahraini regime, who, along with its GCC partners, has gotten away with: mass intimidation of a civilian population; excessive use of force against unarmed, peaceful protesters; inciting sectarian hatred; and violations of US and international law, with a mere slap on the hand.
For all the Unites States’ lofty talk of universal values, the White House has yet again dropped the ball on the people of US-friendly dictatorships of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The United States government has been under great pressure in the last month, from its Western partners to lead the efforts against Qaddafi, but also internally for waging yet another uncertain war. In an attempt to shore up Arab support, seen as crucial for legitimating the “international” in the “international coalition” to impose a no-fly-zone in Libya, the White House struck a deal with GCC member states, negotiating mainly through the UAE. In return for Arab symbolic and material support, the United States would remain silent on the GCC’s role in violently suppressing peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain. It would also support the GCC’s media and diplomatic campaign against Iran and its alleged support of the Bahraini opposition. It is in this context that the US merely urged both sides in Bahrain to “exercise restraint,” by which it meant that, to quote the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, “the protesters need to stop getting in the way.”
The GCC’s military power might have successfully suppressed a popular democratic uprising in one of its own member states for now, although the jury is still out on whether all anti-regime forces have been completely defeated, demoralized, or co-opted. Far from having solved Bahrain’s problems, it seems more likely that the Bahraini regime’s violent and ruthless attack on over half its civilian population will only exacerbate them. As employees start reporting back to work and schools reopen their doors to students traumatized from the events of the last six weeks, I cannot but wonder what it must feel like to go back to “normal” life in Bahrain. What does it mean to resume everyday functions after witnessing and experiencing such alarming levels of violence at the hands of the same regime that is now promising security and dialogue? That some in this region believe this to be the GCC’s "golden age" only adds insult to injury, especially for those who have born the brunt of this internationally sanctioned attack against them. As Bahrain temporarily bans travel to/from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and has provided other GCC states with a list of the names of its opposition members, one cannot expect Bahraini state discrimination against its Shi'a population to ease up anytime soon. It is no wonder then that many opposition members have been scrambling to leave their country in the last few days. The ruling family may have a challenging time legitimating the “national” in any “national reconciliation” efforts it may sponsor, although it is highly doubtful that the al-Khalifas have even thought of how to really get Bahrainis to co-exist once again.
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