Hassan Mohamed ran his finger over bumps of birdshot beneath his skin. He is nearly blind in his left eye, but is scared to go to the emergency room. The wounds would betray him as a protester. His sister arranged to sneak him into a hospital to visit a doctor she trusts. Mohamed was worried.
“The police are watching,” he said. “I don’t want them to take me.”
Helicopters hover over this island kingdom as doctors are rounded up, university students expelled, teachers fired, houses bombed, mosques destroyed and political opponents silenced. What began as a crackdown on predominantly Shiite Muslim protesters who rose up against the Sunni Muslim royal family two months ago has become something more pervasive and sinister.
Opposition parties say the government is systematically pressuring the majority Shiite population, trying to turn a call for wider political freedoms in Bahrain into a regional struggle between Sunni Arab countries and Shiite Iran. Much of the strategy is driven by Bahrain’s dominant ally, Saudi Arabia, which fears pro-democracy movements will upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf.
Talk shows and state-controlled newspapers portray protesters as terrorists who have damaged Bahrain’s image and hurt its economy. Commentary echoes with an air of “us” versus “them.” Influential Shiite voices, including writers, activists and sports stars, have been harassed in what increasingly appears to be institutional repression by hard-liners to set back years of reform.
“It’s apartheid,” said Mansoor Jamri, who was forced to resign as editor of the independent Al Wasat newspaper. “They’ve made a decision that half the population is not wanted, and they want to instill fear in this population and dehumanize them.”
Large demonstrations were violently crushed in March when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent hundreds of police and troops to bolster Bahrain’s security forces. The protests for better jobs and an end to discrimination briefly captivated the world, including the U.S., which has its 5th Fleet based here, but the spreading unrest in the so-called Arab Spring shifted attention to Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Bahrain quickly and quietly moved to purge dissident Shiite elements it claims are backed and trained by Iran and the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Martial law reigns and Manama has turned into a capital of fear and suspicion dotted with military tents and armored personnel carriers. Security forces sweep through roundabouts, lights flashing, as Shiites vanish and reappear before military courts.
Human rights groups say 32 people, including four in police custody, have died and that more than 830 have been arrested. Shiites make up about 65% of the population and nearly all of the dead and detained. Four Shiite demonstrators were sentenced to death last month on charges of killing two police officers during the protests.
The country has slipped into an eerie array of contrasting images. The government attempts to conjure an air of normality as construction cranes swing over the sea, shopping malls gleam and Western expats party in luxury hotels. But beneath this artifice the police state reaches across layers of Shiite society and into thousands of lives.
Mattar Ebrahim Mattar, a member of the Shiite opposition Al Wefaq Party who recently resigned his seat in parliament, said retribution against the ruling family’s opponents is harsh. His brother was fired from a university; his sister robbed; his wife, a doctor, insulted at her hospital. His personal assistant and campaign manager have both been arrested.
“The government wants to maximize this time,” said Mattar, who days after speaking to The Times was also arrested. “They know this crackdown can only last so long before pressure builds for the U.S. and West to step in.”
Bahrain has accused Iran of instigating the unrest. Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid ibn Ahmed Khalifa said the “external threat” from Iran’s Shiite government is aimed at Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries in the oil-rich region. The crisis escalated last month when Manama expelled a top Iranian diplomat.
“The ruling family is attempting to give the protest a sectarian dimension to frighten other Sunni nations,” said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “It’s not a Sunni-Shiite issue. It’s the people versus the government. But I believe the government wants to smash the Shiite, remove them from all institutions.”
Much of the government focus has been on the Salmaniya Medical Complex, where the wounded arrived and protesters gathered during the demonstrations. Police, some of them masked, guard the hospital’s entrance and patrol its corridors. Healthcare workers, including doctors, have been arrested in a campaign to portray Salmaniya’s staff as radicals. The government announced May 3 that 47 doctors and nurses who tended protesters will be charged with acting against the state.
“Doctors are disappearing as part of a systematic attack on medical staff,” according to a report released last week by U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights. The organization said the “excessive force” against healthcare workers and patients, including some who it says were tortured, was “extremely troubling and is cause for an immediate investigation.”
The government denied the accusations, calling them “wholly false.”
Abdulnabi Alekry, a writer and activist, said he visited one doctor who had been blindfolded and punched during detention: “When I saw him, he could not stand. He wept. He was so much humiliated and broken.”
That sense of degradation has widened, especially as bulldozers have destroyed about 20 Shiite mosques, including one that sat in a crumple of tin and mortar on the capital’s outskirts. The government said the mosques were “illegal constructions,” but people here say that even during previous uprisings the government never targeted places of worship.
The collapsed mosque’s caretaker, who would give only the alias Abu Hassan, unfolded blueprints and documents to show that the mosque had received municipal approval as a temporary structure. Such practice is common as communities rely on makeshift mosques while they spend years raising money for a permanent building.
“They tore it down because it was a Shiite mosque,” said Hassan, who sat beneath a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. “They want to show us that they can do whatever they want to us and nobody can stop them. When you destroy a mosque, it’s like they’re killing your father right in front of you.”
The tactics have spurred anger and worry among Shiites. The tens of thousands who marched in downtown Manama’s Pearl Square two months ago have retreated in the face of arrests and rolling checkpoints. Opposition and human rights groups say that about 1,500 Shiites have been fired from their jobs. The government, which had denied mass firings, has sent officials to schools and other institutions to have Bahrainis sign pledges of allegiance to the king.
“The regime is frightened. They’re becoming fascists,” said Munira Fakhro, a Sunni and a member of the National Democratic Action Society. “They’re trying to say the Shiite are betraying Bahrain and the Sunni.”
She sat in the dusk of her living room. Smudges from five gasoline bombs splotched her front porch and outside walls. Her home had been attacked twice in recent weeks. The bomb stains and the police car parked at the curb spoke to the complexity of her predicament: Moderates in the ruling party seek to protect a fellow Sunni, but hard-liners want to silence a potent voice against them.
“Even if I’m worried about violence, I can’t stop and lock my door,” she said. “I have a feeling the rest of my life will be like this. When you see people harassed, you need to speak for them and tell the world that a big mistake is happening here.”
She and other protesters have called for a constitutional monarchy to open Bahrain to more political voices. But many here ruefully joke that Bahrain is a province of Saudi Arabia, its much larger and more powerful neighbor. The fundamentalist Islamic Saudi kingdom, which has a minority Shiite population, has long opposed pluralism.
“We can’t modernize unless the Saudis let us. But the big guy [Saudi Arabia] is too conservative,” she said. “The U.S. doesn’t want to get involved. It doesn’t want to make Saudi Arabia angry. The cash, the oil — the U.S. needs it all.”
Hassan Mohamed sat behind a metal door in a poor part of the city. The pellets his family and friends removed from his back and face were saved in a plastic vial. Birdshot, they said, has become a marker, a source of pride but also a way for police to identify dissidents.
“I will go out and protest again when I heal,” he said. “We won’t stop until we get what we want.”