- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 13, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — One afternoon in May, police in Bahrain led away security guard Mahdi Ali from his job at the Gulf kingdom’s state-controlled aluminum plant.

He claims he was blindfolded and beaten so severely that the bruises still have not healed. His only offense, he insists, is being part of Bahrain’s Shiite majority as it presses for greater rights from Sunni rulers, who have Western allies and powerful Gulf neighbors on their side.

The 44-year-old Mr. Ali now counts himself among Bahrain’s purged: Hundreds of Shiites - some say thousands - dismissed from jobs or suspended from universities for suspected support for demonstrators.

“My only crime is being Shiite,” said Mr. Ali, who claims he has been effectively blacklisted from finding a new job. “I’ve paid for it by being dismissed, arrested, tortured and insulted.”

With Bahrain’s “Arab Spring” crisis moving into its eighth month, the mass dismissals remain a major point of anger feeding near-daily street clashes on the strategic island - which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

The coming weeks could be critical in assessing the chances for any significant reconciliation efforts in Bahrain.

The alternative is an increasingly divided and volatile nation, where the region’s biggest political narratives intersect: Western security interests, Gulf Arab worries about spillover uprisings and Iran’s ambitions to cast wider Middle East influence.

Bahrain had these tensions long before the current Arab upheavals. And it may end up as one of the most enduring and most complex dilemmas after the Arab Spring has run its course,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.

Shiites claim to account for as much as 70 percent of the island kingdom’s population, but say they face systematic discrimination by the 200-year-old Sunni dynasty.

Bahrain’s rulers, meanwhile, court Western and Sunni Arab backing by raising fears that Shiite power Iran is pulling the strings of the protests as a foothold to undermine other Gulf monarchs and sheiks.

Bahrain’s Shiite groups have pledged to boycott elections Sept. 24 to fill 18 parliament seats left vacant since Shiite lawmakers walked out in March to protest the government’s crackdowns.

A fresh wave of protests could be timed to try to overshadow the voting and embarrass officials.

There already are signs of escalating violence after months of low-level skirmishes.

Security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot last week to break up crowds gathered to welcome doctors freed from prison after staging a hunger strike.

“Down, down Hamad,” crowds chanted, in reference to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, as they waited for some of the doctors, who still face charges of aiding the protests.

The broadest aim of the protests is to break the monarchy’s monopoly on power and open room for Shiites in top government and security posts.

But the smaller battles - such as the job and university purges - often have become the focus of outrage by protesters and denunciations from rights groups.

“We are calling for our forgotten civil rights,” said Sayed Ahmad, spokesman for a committee formed by activists to aid workers claiming they were pushed out of their jobs. “We don’t want to fight Sunnis, but we will stand up against anyone … trying to cleanse a sect just because of their political views.”

Mr. Ahmad estimates close to 4,000 Shiite workers have lost their jobs since the protests began in February - many fired for missing work either to join the demonstrations or because they were too nervous to venture out during clashes that have left at least 33 people dead.

Bahrain’s biggest labor group, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, put the figure at about 2,500, but no definitive numbers are available and its unclear whether all dismissals were protest-related.

Government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last month, however, King Hamad urged companies and universities to take steps toward bringing back workers and students pushed out for alleged links to the protests.

Some doors have been opening. Hundreds of people have returned in the past month, including more than 400 university students and more than 100 workers at the state oil company.

But many activists complain that reinstatements are spotty and still leave hundreds without jobs.

“I’ve been almost seven months without a salary,” said a former computer technician at the plant, Mustafa Sadiq, a 39-year-old father of three children. “If this was the case in Europe, there would be massive protests until they got their rights back.”

The firings also have been brought to the attention of an independent commission investigating alleged abuses during Bahrain’s unrest. The findings by the five-member commission - which includes international judicial and human rights experts - are expected Oct. 30.

A statement in July by New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to investigate the dismissals of more than 2,000 workers “apparently as punishment” for backing the protests or following labor union appeals for sympathy strikes.

In Washington, the powerful AFL-CIO labor federation has asked U.S. officials to suspend a five-year-old free-trade accord with Bahrain in retaliation for the mass job dismissals and the firing of union leaders.

The pact is just one of 17 such bilateral trade agreements with Washington, which also includes Israel, Jordan and Oman in the Middle East.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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