Bahrain rejects Shi’ite teenager’s claim of police abuse

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Tue Mar 27, 2012 9:05am EDT

(Reuters) – A Bahraini Shi’ite Muslim teenager said three men who appeared to be plainclothes detectives abducted him last week, dragged him into a garage and beat him into unconsciousness after he refused to spy on youths involved in clashes with riot police.

Ali Singace’s case has raised questions about rights reform in Bahrain after public prosecutors accused him of filing a false report about the alleged effort by police to force him to work as an informer.

A rock-wielding anti-government protester confronts riot police during clashes in Budaiya west of Manama March 26, 2012. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

“I was walking alone when a car came behind me. One got out and pushed me into a garage. Then they closed the door and one said, ‘We don’t want to repeat the question again: we want you to work with us’,” said Singace, a slight 16-year-old who admits he takes part in clashes with police where he lives in Sanabis.

He said the men, who had also approached him in the street last month, slashed his arms with razor blades and bound his hands behind his back. Photos of him when he was discovered later were widely distributed on social media.

A statement on the official BNA news agency last Friday said prosecutors concluded after a medical examination of Singace that he had inflicted the razor wounds himself, noting previous detentions for taking part in clashes with police.

“This is not the first time that prosecutors have filed charges of reporting a crime that did not happen or giving incorrect information,” the report said.

The Gulf Arab state, where the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family dominates political and economic life, has been in turmoil since it crushed a pro-democracy uprising last year, with daily protests in Shi’ite areas that often end in violence.

The government accused Shi’ites, who are the majority in Bahrain, of leading the revolt with sectarian motives and backing from Shi’ite Gulf neighbor Iran. Shi’ites say they face political and economic marginalization, which the state denies.

A U.N. rights body said last week it is concerned that police could be using excessive force, including tear gas that activists say has caused many of over 30 deaths since June.

The government disputes the causes of those deaths and says police are using restraint in the face of petrol bomb attacks.

Prosecutors said Singace did not appear to be traumatized and questioned his claim to have tried to open the garage door with tied hands before fainting, his lawyer told Reuters. Senior paramedic Ibrahim Demestani, who checked Singace after he was found, said he appeared drowsy and depressed.

Prosecution officials were not available for comment.

The case has set a worrying precedent after Bahrain weathered international criticism of its handling of the revolt, said Brian Dooley of U.S.-based group Human Rights First.

“It’s discouraging that when someone complains about police treatment the reflexive response is to blame them,” he said. “It’s fine to have a new complaints procedure and a police code of conduct but until people feel their complaints will be taken seriously and investigated, the reforms mean nothing.”

Bahrain has been under pressure to reform policing, judicial process, education, media and other areas after a commission of international legal experts said in November that there had been widespread abuse during a period of martial law last year.

Last week Bahrain said it had made headway on many of the commission’s recommendations, including installation of video cameras in police stations, but said others would take time.

As part of those reforms, it has opened the door for Bahrainis to file claims for compensation for abuse suffered, and police say the public are free to report any post-martial law violations to the authorities for investigation.

Sitting on a ground mattress in his modest home in Sanabis, Singace said he never expected much from the complaint: “They kept repeating the questions again and again so that I would change my words.”

Bahrain police battle to control streets in flashpoint town

By Andrew Hammond

SITRA, Bahrain, March 24 | Sat Mar 24, 2012 6:02pm EDT

(Reuters) – Bahraini police clashed with anti-government protesters on Saturday at a Shi’ite town where residents tried to demonstrate against the Gulf Arab state’s holding of a Formula One race next month.

Hundreds of riot police backed by dark blue armoured vehicles and jeeps patrolled the streets of Sitra, a poor district southeast of Manama where youths threw petrol bombs and stones at security forces who responded with tear gas canisters, Reuters witnesses said.

Sitra has long been a flashpoint area where Shi’ite Muslim youths vent anger against a government they feel marginalises them politically and economically.

The Sunni-led government blames Shi’ite clerics for the communal conflict, saying they had turned people against the state and incited Shi’ites to raise the temperature on the streets ahead of the race.

Anger on the streets of Sitra rose each time patrols had passed and residents taunted security forces by shouting from inside houses, banging on trash bins and honking horns.

“Come here, you immigrants”, youths shouted, referring to foreign Sunni Muslim hires working with riot police. Some chanted against the island’s ruler, King Hamad.

“You know, it’s been going on like this for 30 years, and they still don’t want to give us our rights,” said Ali Mansour, a 45-year-old taxi driver sheltering with his wife in a car as fumes began to seep in from more canisters that landed nearby.

Bahrain has been bitterly divided since its Shi’ite majority led protests last year for reforms they hope would reduce the powers of the ruling Al Khalifa family, give parliament legislative clout and bring opposition figures into government.

Some called for ditching the monarchy altogether, angering many Sunnis who view the royal family as a force for good and protection against Shi’ite empowerment.

The authorities crushed the protest movement, which was inspired by revolts that brought down entrenched rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, by imposing a period of martial law and bringing in Saudi and other Gulf Arab troops to help win back control of the streets.

But over a year later, ongoing unrest – with clashes in Shi’ite villages and large opposition party marches – has damaged Bahrain’s economy and alarmed Western allies.

They view Bahrain as an important ally in their standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme but want the government to resolve the conflict by reaching a deal with the opposition.

A U.N. rights body this week expressed concern over the use of excessive force and tear gas by Bahraini security forces.

ANTI-GOVERNMENT HOTSPOT

Sitra is covered in anti-government graffiti describing the king as a tyrant and glorifying imprisoned community leaders. One poster cited a condemnation by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the concept of kingship as un-Islamic.

Many streets are strewn with concrete blocks, pieces of wood and trashbins to stop police cars moving into the back alleys.

King Hamad took power in 1999 and vowed to restore parliament and introduce democratic reforms, receiving a rapturous welcome in 2001. He freed prisoners after taking office but came under pressure to introduce further reforms following last year’s protests.

Now Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix on April 20-22 has become embroiled in the troubles, as opposition groups vow to step up protests. Police pulled down posters on the walls in Sitra saying “No Formula 1 in Bahrain”.

“They are paying a lot for Formula One, while people are dying every day,” said Mirza Rabia, 41, a government employee.

Activists say at least 33 people have died since June amid daily clashes in Shi’ite districts, as the government tries to lock protesters in to stop any renewed mass movement in Manama.

Police question the causes of death and their attribution to the conflict. They say they are showing restraint in the face of violent youth challenging state authority.

“We are the government and these guys are scum. Molotov cocktails are not peaceful, they make it rain with molotovs,” said a police corporal who declined to be named.

He said it was difficult to imagine integrating people from Shi’ite communities into the police force – a key recommendation from former Miami police chief John Timoney who is advising the interior ministry on improving conduct.

Bahraini protesters battle police outside Manama

Fri Mar 23, 2012 3:38pm EDT

By Andrew Hammond

(Reuters) – Bahraini protesters battled with riot police near Manama on Friday after the funeral of a woman whose family said she died after tear gas entered her home twice in the past week.

A U.N. rights body this week expressed concern over the use of excessive force and tear gas by Bahraini security forces.

Police moved in with water cannon and armoured vehicles to break up hundreds of protesters as they approached a checkpoint near ‘Pearl Roundabout’, hub of pro-democracy protests last year led by majority Shi’ite Muslims complaining of marginalisation.

The wind carried some of the tear gas away, allowing youths to lob petrol bombs at close range at the vehicles, scoring direct hits. The water cannon fired hot water during the clashes in the district of Jidhafs on the edge of the capital.

The protesters carried banners in the name of the February 14 Youth Coalition, a movement formed since last year’s uprising which says it wants the overthrow of the Al Khalifa family that dominates Bahrain’s government and economy.

Police later brought in reinforcements of at least several hundred riot police with batons and shields who fired tear gas into the neighbourhood as youths taunted them from a distance, sometimes grabbing the tear gas canisters and hurling them back.

“Come and fight hand to hand, you cowards, you animals!” one teenager shouted before throwing a rock at police, a mainly Sunni force which employs many foreigners.

Police fired back, engulfing a vegetable market in tear gas.

Earlier, residents buried the body of 59-year-old Abda Ali AbdulHussein who died overnight after her home was tear gassed, her son Ali said at the graveyard.

“I consider her a victim of the clashes,” he said, adding she had been discharged from hospital this week still suffering lung inflammation after tear gas entered her home a week ago.

“She collapsed in the bathroom. We called a military hospital nearby for an ambulance but they didn’t have any free. By the time one came from the main public hospital she had died,” he said, adding that his mother had been diabetic.

The U.N. High Commission for Human Rights said this week it wanted to investigate possible disproportionate use of force against demonstrators in Bahrain, citing excessive use of tear gas and a rising death toll.

Activists say at least 33 people have died since June amid daily clashes in Shi’ite districts, as the government tries to lock protesters in to stop any renewed mass movement in Manama.

Police question the causes of death and their attribution to the political conflict. They say they are showing restraint in the face of violent youth challenging state authority.

TEN PROTESTS

Friday’s clashes erupted during a series of 10 licenced protests organised by the Gulf Arab state’s official opposition parties, led by the Shi’ite Wefaq group.

There were clashes at some other protests, and youths pulled down a lampost thought to carry a security camera facing a popular coffee shop in the Budaiya district. A police statement said Wefaq leaders would be questioned over the incidents.

The Feb. 14 Youth Coalition protesters broke away from one of those official protests, ignoring Wefaq organisers in orange vests with Wefaq logos who were directing traffic.

“This protest is for bringing down the regime. This one’s for fighting,” said one man as he ran down the street to join the group marching towards Pearl Roundabout, which has been under heavy guard and closed to traffic for a year.

Opposition parties, which include some Sunni and secular groups, want to reduce the powers of the Sunni ruling family, give parliament legislative clout and form a new cabinet. The government has been headed by King Hamad’s uncle Sheikh Khalifa since Bahrain became independent in 1971.

A senior ruling family member has been in contact with Wefaq over possible dialogue to end a crisis that has slowed the economy. Hotels and some office blocks stand half-empty. Manama is no longer the weekend getaway it once was for Saudi tourists.

“The people of Bahrain announce that they will continue to use street action everywhere as long as we do not have our rights and one authority monopolises administration of the country,” Wefaq and three other parties said in a statement.

Bahrain is aligned with Washington in its conflict with Iran over its nuclear work and hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

The United States has urged Bahrain to begin dialogue to end the crisis but Manama must also heed Saudi Arabia, with which it shares a major oil field.

Riyadh sent troops last March to help Bahrain break the protest movement, which erupted after revolts in Egypt and Tunisia shook the region by removing long-entrenched rulers.

Diplomats and opposition figures say Saudi Arabia is now worried that the turmoil in Bahrain could distract attention from its efforts to support rebels in Syria and could inspire Shi’ites in its Eastern Province to challenge the state.

Some Sunni groups in Bahrain do not want the government to give in to the Shi’ite-led opposition, which they accuse of seeking to use street violence to take power.

Bahrain police install cameras to curb abuse

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Thu Mar 22, 2012 1:30pm EDT

(Reuters) – Bahrain is installing video cameras in police stations in an attempt to clean up its human rights image after the crushing of a pro-democracy uprising last year.

But the cameras, introduced after an inquiry led by international jurists uncovered five deaths under torture last year, will not be installed in at least five riot police bases where activists say youths have been beaten.

Riot police detain an anti-government protester (C), injured during a fall while running away from the police, during clashes in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama March 21, 2012. REUTERS-Ahmed Jadallah

At al-Hoora station in Manama, closed circuit television will record police interrogations in rooms with padded grey walls. Rooms without cameras are set aside for detainees to consult lawyers. Other areas of the station are also monitored.

“We chose the color grey because it’s an international standard and it calms people. Anyone in a state of violence has to be calmed down,” said Brigadier Mansour Alhajeri, a police officer conducting a tour for journalists.

He said seven other stations were being fitted with the monitoring system and all 33 stations would be covered by October.

Police chief Tareq al-Hassan was asked about the absence of cameras in the bases from where riot police using jeeps and armored vehicles move to handle protests. “They don’t detain anyone, any arrests will be handed over to police,” he said.

The United States, which regards Bahrain as an ally in its conflict with Iran, has held up arms sales, including anti-tank missiles and armored humvees, until the Gulf island state shows progress in implementing human rights reforms.

Bahrain has been in turmoil for more than a year as opposition parties dominated by the Shi’ite majority population demand an end to the Al Khalifa family’s hold on power and Shi’ite youths clash daily with Sunni-dominated riot police, many of them foreign hires.

Police say they show restraint in the face of rioters who attack them with petrol bombs and iron bars. But opposition and rights activists say 32 civilians have died since June, many from the effects of tear gas or direct hits by tear gas canisters and sound bombs.

The government questions the causes of death and their attribution to the political conflict.

The U.N. High Commission on Human Rights said this week it was concerned about a disproportionate use of force and excessive use of tear gas and would investigate the death toll.

Riot police backed by an overhead helicopter stormed the village of Shahrakan on Thursday when demonstrators gathered after the funeral of Sabry Mahfoud, who activists say died after he inhaled tear gas.

The demonstrators chanted “Down with Hamad”, the main slogan of the uprising that broke out on February 14, 2011, and threw petrol bombs at police.

OFF-CAMERA BEATINGS?

Bahraini rights activists list three informal detention centers where Shi’ite youths are beaten up by riot police before release, while others are beaten in the street.

“More than 160 people have been beaten in these places,” said Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, naming one site as a youth hostel in Sanabis which police acknowledge has been transformed into a riot police base.

Maskati said abuse had moved out of the range of cameras.

“In the past four months I never heard of anyone abused in a police station. They are hit before they reach there, that is the technique they use now,” he said.

John Timoney, a former Miami police chief hired to advise on the reforms, acknowledged that monitoring of detainees before they arrive in police stations was a relevant concern.

“If an arrest is effected, they should be taken to the nearest police station in that area. I take your point – police officers are directed to take them to the nearest police station,” he said when questioned at a news conference.

He added: “If anybody has any information on secret locations of that nature, we want to hear it.”

A 16-year-old was abducted on Wednesday in Sanabis and found unconscious several hours later with his hands tied, underpants removed and trousers pulled down. His family filed a complaint to public prosecutors, blaming plainclothes detectives.

The interior ministry said it was investigating the incident.

Saudi Arabia pushing Bahrain to solve crisis, fears Syria effect

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Wed Mar 21, 2012 5:36pm GMT

(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia wants Bahrain’s government and opposition to resolve a political crisis that it fears could worsen because of the sectarian fallout of fighting in Syria and destabilise its Eastern Province, a diplomat and opposition politician said.

Bahrain has been in turmoil since the Arab Spring protest movement first erupted a year ago. Clashes have become a daily occurrence, usually in districts populated by majority Shi’ite Muslims who have dominated the protests.

An anti-government protester (L) runs for cover after throwing a molotov cocktail at an armoured personnel carrier (APC) belonging to riot police during clashes in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama March 21, 2012. REUTERS-Hamad I Mohammed

“We heard that at end of January the Saudis were reaching out to Wefaq and wanted to hear how Wefaq – if Act 1 was last year – how they were going to play their role in Act 2,” a senior Western diplomat said.

The leading Shi’ite opposition party Wefaq was involved in backroom talks during a pro-democracy uprising last year on reforms offered by Crown Prince Salman, but the they were cut short when Saudi troops rolled in and martial law was imposed.

The revolt was led by Shi’ite Muslim majority population on an island which is important to Washington as the base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

The Shi’ite majority has called for sweeping democratic reforms that would reduce the Sunni ruling family’s monopoly on power and allow parliament real powers to legislate and form governments.

One year on clashes between riot police and youths in Shi’ite districts have escalated, with heavy use of petrol bombs against police who in turn use large amounts of tear gas. Activists say at least 32 have died since martial law ended, though police question the causes of death.

In January Wefaq members met with Royal Court Minister Khaled bin Ahmed for preliminary discussions on a formal dialogue on democratic reforms.

The diplomat said Wefaq, which faces radicalisation among many Shi’ite youth who oppose the monarchy, had met for a second time with the minister in recent weeks.

“There is stuff going on but it’s getting more difficult than they imagined it would be. They are finding it difficult to get common ground,” he said, citing government fears that Wefaq would command a parliamentary majority.

“You can foresee a political solution here that would keep the Saudis very happy, but I think the red lines would be slightly tighter than last year,” he added.

Analysts say Riyadh sent troops last year because of alarm that Bahrain had not contained protests that had the potential to spill over into the Shi’ite Eastern Province region, where major Saudi oilfields are located.

An opposition politician, who did not wish to be named, said Saudi Arabia now feared that the conflict in Syria, in which Shi’ite Iran and its ally Hezbollah back Bashar al-Assad’s rule, could sharpen Bahrain’s sectarian divide – detracting attention from Syria and firing up Saudi Shi’ites.

“The Saudis are worried (the stalemate) could push the Shi’ites towards Iran… and at what could emerge as a consequence of Syria,” he said.

Loyalist Sunni groups in Bahrain, who look to the ruling Al Khalifa for protection, have held protests against Assad and accuse Shi’ites of sympathy for Assad.

Media in Iran and Hezbollah give positive coverage to Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition, and Iraqi Shi’ites often demonstrate in support of their Bahraini coreligionists.

Some Sunni leaders in Bahrain fear the fate of Iraq’s Sunnis, sidelined after Shi’ites gained power through elections.

Unrest in the Saudi Eastern Province has flared again in recent months.

“The Saudis really don’t need unrest in the Eastern Province right now,” said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Doha-based Royal United Services Institute. “The policy priority for Saudi Arabia has been Syria for last three months.”

Bahrain to push on with medics trial, not drop cases

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Tue Mar 20, 2012 6:45pm EDT

(Reuters) – Bahrain will go ahead with the prosecution of 20 medics who treated wounded protesters during an uprising last year, despite a statement suggesting most of the cases would be dropped, the justice minister said on Tuesday.

The prosecution of doctors drew international criticism, with rights groups saying the medics were being punished for helping civilians hurt by state forces during anti-government demonstrations.

Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said last week authorities would pursue criminal charges against only five medics, while transferring the other cases to a professional tribunal.

However, the accused were not informed of the public prosecutor’s announcement and the trial has continued with the judge declining to explain why no charges were dropped.

“At the end of the day, the last decision will be at the court, the court has to acquit or punish. Until a final judgment, all of them are accused,” Justice Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa told a news conference.

Fifteen of the accused would be punished by a professional tribunal once condemned, he said, while the other five would be sentenced by the court.

Rights groups following the trial have speculated about a dispute within the ruling family over the medics’ trial which has also been criticized for using military courts to punish civilians.

The ongoing prosecutions are retrials in a civil court after a military court sentenced the 20 doctors and other medical staff in September, to jail terms of up to 15 years on charges including incitement to overthrow the government and attempting to occupy a hospital.

Some of the doctors, who are from the Shi’ite majority, took part in a protest inside the Salmaniya hospital grounds and spoke to television channels from inside the hospital.

“It looks like various people are making decisions in the Bahrain government without an agreed policy. What’s happening with the medics smells of incoherence and incompetence,” said Brian Dooley of U.S.-based group Human Rights First.

The case is further complicated because public opinion among many Sunnis is against the doctors, who were the focus of loyalist anger on state television last year.

TV hosts, officials and callers accused the doctors of deliberately worsening patient injuries and causing the deaths of protesters in order to discredit security forces who attacked them – accusations that were never pressed in court.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said last month that Bahrain should seek “alternatives to criminal prosecution” in the case.

Bahrain is a key ally to Washington in its conflict with Iran over its nuclear programme, hosting the U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet. But the United States is trying to end continuing violence by pushing the government to talk to the opposition.

Clashes occur daily between riot police and youths in Shi’ite districts. The government describes the youths, who throw petrol bombs at police, as vandals and says opposition groups should do more to rein them in. (This version of the story has been corrected to fix the dateline)

Bahrain says significant progress made on reforms

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Tue Mar 20, 2012 2:59pm EDT

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s king said on Tuesday his island state had rolled out real reforms in the wake of international criticism of its crackdown on protesters last year but now needed to prove it could put them into practice.

At least 1,000 people were detained when the Sunni Muslim kingdom crushed protests led by its Shi’ite majority demanding curbs to the power of the ruling family, an end to sectarian discrimination and democratic reforms.

A police officer explains and shows the new interrogation room set up at the Gudaibiya Police Station in Manama March 20, 2012, during an official media visit arranged by Bahrain authorities. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said the country – a key ally by Washington in its conflict with Iran since it provides a base for the U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet – had made significant progress in reforming its security forces, judiciary, social policy and media since the unrest in February-March 2011.

“We want our people to feel and see the differences these changes have on their lives. The challenge of the coming months will be to translate these into tangible, cultural changes,” the king said at a ceremony before government officials, military officers, diplomats and foreign media.

“The doors of dialogue have and continue to be open,” he said, touching on reports of stepped-up contacts in recent weeks between the government and opposition parties on formal talks on political reforms.

Business in the banking and tourism hub has been hit by a crisis that has dragged on for over a year, allowing radicals among pro-government Sunnis and in the Shi’ite opposition to gain ground.

Bahrain’s opposition parties say the government is window-dressing to impress Western allies who pressured it into launching an investigation into the crushing of protests last year and abuses committed during martial law.

They complain that no senior officials have been held accountable for torture of detainees, which led to five deaths, and at the sackings of public and private employees who took part in protests and destruction of mosques.

“The same people are in charge and still there, no one at a high level has been taken to court or prosecuted,” said Jawad Fairooz of the leading opposition party Wefaq at a news conference this week.

When pressed by reporters, Justice Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ali Al Khalifa declined to say whether anyone would face action for executing those decisions. He said torture had been an institutional problem, rather than a policy.

Bahrain called in troops from Sunni Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help crack down on protesters, whom it accused of acting with an Iranian-backed Shi’ite agenda.

Fourteen protest leaders remain in jail after military trials. The opposition says they should have been released since their crimes were political.

ARAB SPRING UPRISING

Bahrain tasked international lawyers led by Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni to investigate the unrest, which brought Middle East the kind of political ferment that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt to the doorstep of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s king on Tuesday was commenting on a report by a government commission on how well the government was rolling out recommendations made by Bassiouni’s team late last year.

“The process of implementation is continuous and it will take time until results become clear,” Ali Saleh al-Saleh, head of the appointed upper house of parliament, said in a speech to the king, outlining the commission’s progress so far.

The progress report said the kingdom had agreed to a new police code of conduct, had allowed the Red Cross to inspect detention centers and set up a body to investigate accusations that government employees killed or mistreated citizens. The government says 15 of 26 recommendations have been carried out.

Bahrain earlier this month imposed restrictions on human rights group monitoring the reforms it says it has carried out, and asked the U.N. investigator into torture to postpone a visit to the country until July.

Human Rights Minister Fatima Al-Balooshi said rights groups had been restricted to five-day visas because of staffing shortages at her ministry. “It’s an organizational issue,” she told Reuters after the ceremony.

Street protests in largely Shi’ite areas of the country continue daily, and feature confrontations with security forces using tear gas on demonstrators.

Activists say abuses by riot police continue. There were clashes on Monday after the funeral of a 27-year-old who died after inhaling tear gas. The government says such deaths are an unfortunate consequences of anarchic violence by angry youths.

“Tear gas is not used as an offensive weapon,” said John Timoney, a former Miami police chief brought in to help with reforms, told reporters. “I’ve seen police using great restraint after tremendous provocation night after night.”

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday that it welcomed the government’s steps to reform the security sector, but said it there were still ongoing concerns over the use of force.

“We have been receiving worrying reports of the disproportionate use of force by Bahraini security forces, including the excessive use of tear gas, the use of birdshot pellets and rubber bullets,” said the U.N. spokesman, Rupert Colville, calling on the government to investigate.

Bahrain opposition may be losing touch with the youth

MANAMA, March 14 (Reuters) – Bahrain’s main opposition movement Wefaq is making overtures to the monarchy on how to pursue democratic reforms but its efforts may be undermined by waning support from youth who seek more revolutionary change. Continue reading Bahrain opposition may be losing touch with the youth

Bahrain opposition may be losing touch with the youth

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Wed Mar 14, 2012 10:16am EDT

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s main opposition movement Wefaq is making overtures to the monarchy on how to pursue democratic reforms but its efforts may be undermined by waning support from youth who seek more revolutionary change.

Three members of Wefaq, which dominates Shi’ite politics and has taken almost half the seats in parliament in past elections, recently met a prominent member of the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family to discuss a way forward after a year of unrest following the bloody breakup of protests at the Pearl Roundabout.

Anti-government protesters are seen during clashes in the village of Diraz, west of Manama, March 13, 2012. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

“The country is paralyzed now,” Abduljalil Khalil, one of the Wefaq members involved, said to justify Wefaq’s move. “The country is in big trouble if you can’t move your security forces from the roundabout.”

The traffic intersection has remained under heavy guard and closed. The economy in what was a bustling banking and tourism centre is stagnant, and visa restrictions have been placed on tourists, journalists and international rights groups.

Washington, for whom Bahrain’s stability is important given that it bases its Fifth Fleet in Manama across the Gulf from adversary Iran, has often urged the government to engage Wefaq.

But at this stage the point may be moot, as the monarchy now faces an array of hardline political forces – Shi’ite Islamist and secular – some of whom have said openly that they favor ditching the monarchy and replacing it with an republic.

Though most of these groups’ leaders are in prison or abroad, youth and rights activists have used new media to organize street opposition, deploying the language of revolution. And some loyalists accuse Wefaq of exploiting angry youth for its own political gain.

“We won’t let anyone go and speak in the name of the people,” said Hisham Sabbagh of Amal, a legal Islamist party.

STREET RADICALS

An underground group calling themselves the February 14 Youth Coalition – after the date when the uprising began last year – claims to speak in the name of disaffected Shi’ite youth throughout the country, announcing protests and reporting on clashes in Shi’ite districts via Twitter and Facebook.

Recently they have used alarming, sectarian phrases such as “holy petrol bombs”, “martyrdom ambushes” and “Haidar attacks”, a reference to the first Shi’ite Imam, Ali, though they do not veer into the realm of insults that some government loyalists employ against Shi’ites.

Though youths will go to Wefaq’s government-approved rallies, they ignore calls by its leader Sheikh Ali Salman to avoid slipping into violent engagement with riot police.

Activists say the heavy use of tear gas, bird shot and other crowd control tactics has caused more than 25 deaths and hundreds of injuries since last June, numbers that the government disputes.

“We respect the opposition but everyone has to choose their own path. Ali Salman doesn’t really know the situation we live in,” one teenager said while preparing bottles to throw at police in Jidhafs, an impoverished flashpoint district.

Nabeel Rajab, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, poses another challenge.

Rajab, who has risen to prominence in the past year with one of the highest number of Twitter followers in the Arab world at 121,000, was quick to tweet words of rebuke when the news of the talks with the government emerged, describing the court minister who met Wefaq as part of the problem, not its solution.

For many, Rajab has acquired a revolutionary allure.

“We all love him. He’s daring. He knows how to talk and he doesn’t just tell people to do something, he actually does it himself,” said a smitten receptionist after he turned up at a commercial building last month asking for directions.

Like the February 14 activists, Rajab refers to the security forces as “mercenaries”, because of the notable number of Pakistani and other foreign hires – language that Wefaq avoids.

Rajab has become a master at acts of civil disobedience via unlicensed but peaceful protest in the heart of Manama that police confront with tear gas, even if numbers are small. A bete noire for the authorities, prosecutors have questioned him on numerous occasions but never pressed charges.

Last month he was joined by Western activists who were deported for entering on tourist visas, spurring a tightening of visa regulations.

“If there’s a deal with Wefaq and he doesn’t sanction it, we might have a problem,” said Taqi Al Zeera, a founder of Wefaq who left because he felt the party was closed to Sunnis. “He has many followers on the streets and if I was in the government’s shoes I would invite him to the table.”

‘DOWN WITH HAMAD’

One clear divide between Wefaq and activists is the use of the slogan “Down with Hamad” (King Hamad bin Isa), a chant that began after protesters died in the first eruptions last year, following the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

In line with Wefaq’s commitment to the monarchy, its leader refers deferentially to the king as “His Majesty”, though “Down with Hamad” is often heard from the crowd at Wefaq rallies.

Activists say the phrase does not necessarily mean opposition to continued rule by the king or any other member of the Al Khalifa family. But it expresses a break in the reverential aura around the ruling family, they say.

“I was really uncomfortable the first time I said it and I had to ask myself why,” said one activist who did not wish to be named. “The wall of fear was broken in February 2011 and the government’s goal is to build it back up again.”

Whatever difficulties Wefaq faces with the radicalized street, it still has on side the leading Shi’ite cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, widely viewed as its unofficial spiritual guide. Both say they want reform within the framework of monarchy.

“The relationship with Isa Qassim is important: it helps to lend Wefaq weight,” said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, though she said there was a danger of exaggerating his influence.

“Ultimately, a new political settlement is only going to work if it is credible, fair and inclusive. If not, neither Wefaq nor Isa Qassim will be able to market it.”

Wefaq has also maintained relevance by providing money for Bahrainis who lost their jobs or whose scholarships were stopped for taking part in the February-March protest movement.

“The only people who stood up against sacked employees is Wefaq. They are still leading the community,” said a supporter who gave his name only as Hassan because of sensitivity of the topic.

Walking in the opposition hotbed of Sitra, Wefaq official Matar Matar said he believed most disaffected Shi’ite youth would still accept a political solution engineered by Wefaq.

He recalled how King Hamad was given a rapturous welcome in Sitra in 2001 — even trying to lift up his car — after enacting reforms to restore a parliament suspended in 1975.

“We said openly that we are willing to enter negotiations to end this conflict and we are confident that the majority of people will accept it,” said Matar, one of a new generation of young politicians Wefaq has promoted to maintain youth appeal.

“Even in Sitra, people will be reasonable if the government offers something. They wouldn’t try to carry his (king’s) car again, but we’d be in a better situation.”

Bahrain moves economic reformer off policymaking body

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI, March 13 | Tue Mar 13, 2012 4:00pm EDT

(Reuters) – The man who led efforts to diversify Bahrain’s oil-reliant economy has lost his job as head of the kingdom’s top economic policy-making body, further clouding the future of reforms which have stalled since anti-government unrest last year.

The state news agency said on Tuesday that Sheikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa had left by royal decree his post as chief of the Economic Development Board to become a political and economic adviser to Crown Prince Salman.

“Sheikh Mohammed will still be involved very closely,” said a source close to the EDB, a brainchild of the crown prince.

But one observer speculated it could signal the end of the EDB as the main executive body for economic policy.

The EDB, which has tried to train and employ Bahrainis in a country where the majority Shi’ite community complains of economic marginalisation, may be reduced to its former role of an advisory body.

Bahrain has been in the grip of political conflict over the past year after Shi’ites, inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, led a protest movement for democratic reforms.

The ruling Al Khalifa family crushed the uprising after one month, as hardliners in government appeared to take the reins after the crown prince had begun discussions with opposition parties on political reforms.

Protests and clashes between police and Shi’ite youths continue daily in the U.S. ally, host to Washington’s Fifth Fleet. The economy has taken a hit, with some banks quitting the country and the tourism and real estate sector slowing up.

Jasim Husain, a economist from the opposition Wefaq party, said a change of guard was needed at the organisation.

“There was a need for a new face. I like the idea of bringing someone with fresh ideas, but it would be better if it’s not someone from the royal family,” he said.

“Sheikh Mohammed did a good job in bringing investment to Bahrain, and he had the right idea on labour reform, but since the crackdown last year that had not been a priority.”

An oil state with dwindling supplies, Bahrain imposes no personal income tax and many Bahrainis enjoy a high standard of living, but inequalities have helped to spur discontent.

Some reforms, such as reducing reliance on expatriate labour, have slowed in the past year as a consequence of a conflict within government over the political stalemate. The EDB board had not met in a year because of the crisis.

COMMONER TECHNOCRAT STEPS IN

Recently-appointed Transport Minister Kamal Ahmed will take over as the EDB’s chairman until a replacement is appointed, the Bahrain News Agency also said.

Ahmed is a former chief operating officer at the EDB whose recent appointment as transport minister was welcomed by many. He is viewed as a technocrat commoner in a country where the Al Khalifa family holds the levers on many areas of public life.

The source close to the EDB said Ahmed’s appointment in the interim was a sign that the policies of Sheikh Mohammed, who held the job since 2005, would continue.

An observer, who is close to official circles, said the removal of Sheikh Mohammed signalled the effective downgrading of the EDB to an advisory body.

He said this made sense because the body had operated as a quasi-cabinet, but expressed concern over the fate of reforms.

“We cannot have two cabinets. One of them had to go and the EDB had not functioned for a year,” he said, saying that hardliners in the government could give senior economic and academic positions to loyalists close to the security apparatus.

“All economic reform projects have been watered down and merged into the mainstream hardline tendency,” he said.