Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, is supposed to be a joyous occasion. But in the U.S.-allied Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, where the Sunni-dominated government has arrested scores of Shi'ite opposition activists in recent weeks, many celebrated in fear.
The current crackdown comes in advance of next month’s parliamentary elections and follows weeks of rioting and occasional property destruction by the majority Shi’ites, who have long demanded a greater share of the island kingdom’s resources and more say in its political process.
While the streets have largely quieted in response to the arrests, an explosion apparently targeting the country’s security services was reported Tuesday south of the capital of Manama. No one was injured in the blast.
Confirmed detainees include 23 prominent Shi'ite political activists, charged with plotting the government’s overthrow, as well as the proprietor of the country’s most popular website, charged with “spreading false information.” But sources on the ground told The Washington Times that the recent arrests have been more far-reaching.
“We stopped counting at 250,” said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “People are being arrested on an hourly basis.” Other activists peg the number somewhat lower but acknowledge that continued detentions and periodic releases make an exact number elusive.
“It’s been coming to this for quite a long time,” said Toby Jones, a Rutgers University professor of Middle East History who lived in Bahrain from 2003 to 2006 while working for the International Crisis Group. “Since the summer of 2005, we’ve seen an escalation in [street violence from the Shia]. Over time, it’s grown increasingly provocative and confrontational, and the state has simultaneously become more heavy-handed and brutal.”
The State Department declined to comment for this report. But some say the prolonged incommunicado detentions and widespread allegations of severe torture invariably force the Obama administration into choosing between American ideals and interests.
“Bahrain is a critical country to us,” said Ronald E. Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain. “It provides the basing for our 5th fleet. It has provided us with refueling support for both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not a place where you want to just tear up your relationship.”
The situation is complicated by heightening U.S. tensions with Iran, whose growing regional influence frightens neighboring Arab states — particularly those, like Bahrain, with large Shi'ite populations.
“American policy operates under the presumption that Iran has a deep reach into Iraq, it has a deep reach into Saudi Arabia, and that it’s able to shape the minds of Bahraini Shias as well,” Mr. Jones said.
“So to then criticize the Bahrainis for using precisely that excuse to crack down on the Shia is inconsistent with America’s broader geostrategic position. If America calls all these people democrats and says they’re just advocating for greater political participation or whatever, then it undermines Bahrain’s claim that we’re dealing with a potential fifth column here.”
The highest-profile string of arrests involves Abduljalil al-Singace, a leader in the Shi’ite political movement Haq, and 22 other prominent activists, who stand accused of belonging to a “terror network” seeking the government’s overthrow — a charge that carries the death penalty.
With no trial date set thus far, however, concern has focused on how Mr. al-Singace and others are being treated in detention.
“What we’ve heard about his condition is very bad,” said Mr. al-Singace’s daughter Zahra, who has had no direct contact with her father since she saw him arrested at the airport on Aug. 13 upon his return from London, where he had criticized Bahrain’s human rights practices before the House of Lords.
“He has been beaten to the point that he has almost lost his ability to hear,” Ms. Al-Singace said. “They took his glasses and crutches, which he can’t walk without, and blinded his eyes for more than two weeks. They also used electricity shocks on his nipples and ears.”