Bahrain: Is a U.S. Ally Torturing Its People?

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Hasan Jamali / AP

Relatives film bruises on the body of Ali Isa Saqer, 31, as he is washed for burial, April 10, 2011. Saqer was one of three anti-government detainees the Interior Ministry has said died in police custody in the past week. The ministry said Saqer died after "creating chaos at the detention center."

On March 17, Ibrahim Shareef, the head of the anti-government activist movement Waad, was snatched from his home at gunpoint by what his family describes as Bahraini security forces. Thrown into a waiting sport utility vehicle, he was driven off into the night. Today he's still missing, whereabouts unknown.

As the island kingdom's Sunni regime continues to crack down on anti-government activists and prominent Shi'ites, Shareef and more than 460 others are believed to be in government custody. New arrests happen daily in the country, which is home base of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Bahrain was designated an official Non-NATO ally in October 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on America.

While there have been wild rumors of the whereabouts of the arrested dissidents, the likely truth is dire enough. Nearly all may be held in prisons around Bahrain, with an unknown number undergoing questioning and torture. On Wednesday, opposition party al-Wefaq claimed that at least four detainees had been killed since April 2, from injuries sustained from police-inflicted torture. Human Rights Watch says another three died in March, including one man who arrived in custody with knees blown out by ammunition fired at close range.

Meanwhile, press scrutiny of the regime of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has been severely hampered. Foreign media are largely shut out of the country; and Mansur al-Jamri, the editor of Wefaq's newspaper al Wasat, sits in custody alongside other journalists and bloggers. "There are concerns that heightened restrictions on international press and the levels of intimidation among much of the Shi'a community will prevent important information from getting out," says Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House. "Many people are scared that talking to the international media or human rights groups will endanger them or their families."

The result has been catastrophic for the opposition. Based on accounts from Bahrainis who were taken into custody in the revolution's earlier days, the treatment of prisoners can be brutal. The corpses of recent alleged victims may be evidence of torture as well. According to Human Rights Watch, the body of a 31-year-old Shi'ite activist named Ali Issa Saqer bore "signs of horrific abuse." The organization says the other bodies displayed signs that they too had met a "violent end."

Bahrain's Interior Ministry says that Saqer died in a jailhouse rumble that got out of hand; it claims two others died while in custody from complications from sickle-cell anemia. But while the disease is common in Bahrain, neither victim had shown symptoms of carrying it pre-arrest. "I very much fear there will be more death because there is no transparency in all this," says Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "We're not seeing where they're being held, or their names, and it's these kinds of conditions that make for torture and brutality and death."

It doesn't take much to get arrested in Bahrain these days, as the country operates under a reign of terror. People can be taken into custody for any number of reasons: speaking out against the King or vague association with activist groups (offenses can include carrying a Bahraini flag, deemed a symbol of the anti-government movement). They are routinely hauled out of their cars at police checkpoints after being identified as Shi'a. Once jailed, they reportedly face interrogators bent on getting them to incriminate themselves, even for nonviolent political association. The regime is taking extreme measures to extinguish any flicker of rebellion. "The hard line faction of the ruling family is [eliminating] any and all forms of political dissent," says Stork. "There are still raids into villages every night. It's punishment, creating a state of fear, so that no one will stick out their head and raise their voice."

In Manama, those who have been arrested at gunpoint and let go tell of being bound by their hands and feet with cables tied so tight blood circulation is cut off; they described being gagged and blindfolded for days. According to HRW, the regime has, in the past, used electro-shock devices. These include cattle prods and stun guns, which immobilize victims' bodies and leave visible marks.

Once the torture ends, jailhouse conditions are still brutal. One leading activist spent six months in prison, in a cell he described as being "not much wider" than a bath towel. He was allowed so little contact with the outside world that towards the end of his imprisonment, the family was unsure if he was still alive. Briefly released, he was re-arrested last month, now one of the 460 missing.