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Uncertainty Reigns in Bahrain Amid Mix of Normalcy, State of Siege

May 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After government crackdowns in Bahrain crushed the Arab spring uprising, divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims have widened. Margaret Warner reports from Bahrain on the feelings of unease in the wealthy Persian Gulf nation.
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GWEN IFILL: Next tonight, the crushing of the Arab spring in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain.

Margaret Warner reports on how events there have widened the divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

MARGARET WARNER: Approaching downtown Manama, Bahrain doesn’t feel like a country in turmoil. Skyscrapers gleam in the sun of this tiny Persian Gulf financial hub ruled by a 200-year-old Sunni monarchy.

The stock market, though foreign investment has stalled, appears to be humming along. But all is not as it seems. Some shoppers have returned to the malls, but hotels and restaurants are hurting. Tourists are still staying away, a blow to the economy of this island kingdom. It touts itself as a tolerant playground for visitors from socially conservative Gulf neighbors and beyond.

That’s a hard sell with armed troops and riot police vehicles on the streets, enforcing a state of emergency in effect since March 15. Checkpoints dot the roadways between the capital and suburban villages, where many of the country’s Shia majority live.

LT. TAHER AL ALAWI, Bahrain federal police: We stop them and we check for their identification and ask of their purpose of coming into this village.

MARGARET WARNER: Lt. Taher Alawi says the checkpoints have made the villages safer. But residents say it feels like a state of siege.

WOMAN: When we tried to leave our village, they said, “No, you cannot leave it. You have to go back. We don’t care. Whatever reason you have for leaving, you will go back.”

MARGARET WARNER: The state of emergency came in response to month-long demonstrations inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The protesters, mostly Shias, but Sunnis too, had occupied the city’s landmark Pearl Roundabout, calling for greater freedoms and opportunity.

After early clashes that killed some demonstrators, security forces let them stay, until they blocked the road to the city’s vital financial district. Fifteen hundred troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states came in to back up Bahraini forces as they imposed a violent crackdown.

Today, the financial district and Pearl Roundabout are free of protesters, though we weren’t permitted to film the roundabout to show you the military presence there.

But the country is polarized now by two opposing narratives. Most Sunnis think the crackdown is essential to restoring Bahrain’s order and prosperity. Most Shias think the crackdown is systematically targeting them and widening the sectarian divide.

In relatively poor Shia villages like Diraz, the signs of political resistance today are subtle, graffiti urging “Death to al-Khalifa.” That’s the royal family. Every week, worshipers from nearby villages flock to Diraz to hear the country’s leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim. Last Friday, he urged them to continue to fight for their rights, but by peaceful means.

After the service, the veiled woman identifying herself only as Zeinab described the night raids her relatives and friends have endured.

WOMAN: They will not knock first. They will just attack, break the door and enter. For me, I am very scared of being attacked at house and my children being, you know, terrorized. They are trying to crush our pride, crush our dignity. And we are trying to keep it peaceful. I don’t know how long…

MARGARET WARNER: These two young sisters, who also took pains to cover their faces, said the Shias feel powerless.

WOMAN: I can’t believe what’s happened here. We want you for help us. We are in a big problem here, and we don’t know what to do.

WOMAN: (OFF-MIKE)

MARGARET WARNER: What?

WOMAN: The police there.

MARGARET WARNER: OK. You go. Go.

At that moment, after spotting riot police SUVs circling the village, they fled.

Nabil Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, says the raids are part of a wider pattern of brutality. He says more than 1,000 Bahrainis, mostly Shia, have been swept up in a revolving door of detentions.

NABIL RAJAB, Bahrain Center for Human Rights: Among them are men, women, journalists, doctors, nurses, unionists from all sort of professions. And most of them were systematically tortured. Many women were sexually harassed and assaulted.

MARGARET WARNER: Four people have died in custody. Rajab charges foul play. He showed us photos of the bruised body of one such victim, Ali Isa Saqer. Five prison guards are being charged with Saqer’s death.

That’s according to Bahrain’s Minister of Justice Sheikh Khalid bin Ali bin Abdulla al Khalifa, one of the royal family.

Has there been abuse of detainees in prison?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN ALI BIN ABDULLA AL KHALIFA, Bahraini minister of justice: Do you think it is for me to confirm that there is an abuse or not? The policy of the government is to respect human rights and we will not tolerate any human rights abuses.

MARGARET WARNER: And there’s no difference between policy and practice?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN ALI BIN ABDULLA AL KHALIFA: There is a big combination between them.

MARGARET WARNER: Another new tactic, the destruction of Shia holy sites, at least two dozen so far. A month ago, this pile of rubble in a village we visited was a mosque. So were these columns in another village nearby.

Sheikh Khalid, whose ministry also oversees Islamic affairs, says the destroyed structures were on private or city land.

SHEIKH KHALID BIN ALI BIN ABDULLA AL KHALIFA: These lands and these buildings were not licensed. The bottom line with this is, if you have a licensed worship place, nobody can touch it and the government itself will protect it.

MARGARET WARNER: Also targeted, health workers, many of them at the country’s huge Salmaniya Hospital center. It was besieged with injuries during the protests, as shown on this cell phone-shot YouTube video. It became a flash point when, authorities say, protesters and Shia staff sympathizers essentially took over.

One experienced Shia doctor, whose identity we agreed to hide, said she treated all her regular hospital patients by day and demonstrators at the roundabout at night.

WOMAN: I was handcuffed and blindfolded. And then I was taken to a separate room, which was very, very cold. They asked me to remain standing for a few hours in this situation with the — blindfolded and handcuffed.

MARGARET WARNER: And were your hands behind your back?

WOMAN: Behind, yes, in the back. After a few hours, I was really very tired, so they allowed me to lie down on the floor without a blanket, without anything in that cold room. And it was really very scary, because I don’t know what will be — happen to me next.

MARGARET WARNER: Did anyone say to you why they called you down in the first place?

WOMAN: No, not at all. Really, it is very sad to remember it, because, when they started the questioning, all — they slapped me actually very hardly on my face.

And during the interrogation, whenever I said something which they don’t like it, they will slap me again. And I was beaten also by a hose on my hands and my thighs. When I finished, they took me back to the other room, and they came to me later on. In the dark while my — still I was blindfolded, they gave me the paper of confession to sign it and thumb — thumbprint without knowing what is there in that paper.

MARGARET WARNER: And did they read you what was on the paper?

WOMAN: No, not at all. I was just asked to sign it and thumbprint.

MARGARET WARNER: What were they trying to get you to say?

WOMAN: They were trying first maybe to accuse some other people, especially one of the doctors.

MARGARET WARNER: So, they were trying to get you to implicate other people?

WOMAN: Yes, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Weeks later, inexplicably, she was set free. Now home, she’s afraid to go public, her medical license is suspended and she’s unsure about her future.

Why do you think the regime is coming after particularly medical professionals in the Shia community?

WOMAN: They don’t want anyone to speak up for the — to the public that they have seen what happened, because, in their news, they are seeing that there were very few injured people and just we are exaggerating the things.

MARGARET WARNER: So, why are you speaking up this way to me now?

WOMAN: I have my colleagues who are detained now for approximately two months, so something to be done for their immediate release. I mean, we cannot do anything for us as a public. I think we need the U.S. government to speak up for us and to do something for us.

SHEIKH KHALID BIN ALI BIN ABDULLA AL KHALIFA: So, we are talking about Salmaniya as being sieged. We’re talking about some of the wounded have been gravely wounded more just to show the media that…

MARGARET WARNER: The government defends the detentions as a needed investigative tool to get to the bottom of what happened at the hospital.

I asked the justice minister about the doctor’s case.

SHEIKH KHALID BIN ALI BIN ABDULLA AL KHALIFA: The policy of the government is against any form of maltreatment. If she is really finding that her rights have been abused, and this truly happened to her, she has to — and my advice to anyone like her is to go directly to the Ministry of Interior or the public prosecution and file a case against the one that she knows or doesn’t know that he may inflicted this harm to her.

This is the way that we should deal with these things in the country. It doesn’t suffice just to go to the media and say that, “I have been slapped or I have been subjected to any kind of maltreatment” without any evidence.

MARGARET WARNER: And would reprisals take place against her family?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN ALI BIN ABDULLA AL KHALIFA: There has never been any kind of reprisals. We don’t go for reprisals. This is not the government of Bahrain.

MARGARET WARNER: Not far from the Shia villages, but a world away, Hisham Abu Alfateh, an investment banker and host on state-owned Bahrain TV, was enjoying a Saturday afternoon with his wife, Heba Abdul Wahab and their toddler son at a shopping mall’s indoor playground.

This Sunni family is grateful for the crackdown, for restoring order and some sense of calm.

HISHAM ABU ALFATEH, investment banker: Work is going back to normal, and everything is moving back peacefully together. But the intensity of what has happened has led us all to be in fear. We were not only scared about life, but scared of what’s next? What’s going to happen to us? But we have got families. I have got a kid. My wife’s pregnant. What’s going to happen?

MARGARET WARNER: The last thing they wanted to see in Bahrain was an Arab spring-style revolution.

DR. HEBA ABDUL WAHAB, dermatologist: I disagree on people comparing what’s happened in Bahrain to what’s happened in Egypt and Tunisia, because I just don’t see that we — we have the same problems they have. We live a better life, that’s for sure.

HISHAM ABU ALFATEH: Look at Egypt. They’re suffering. Tunisia, all those countries are now almost in absolute chaos. Is that the better quality of life that we have been sort of told that will would happen if the regime is not in place?

MARGARET WARNER: Abdul Wahab, a dermatologist at Salmaniya Hospital, thinks the detentions of Shia doctors, who she said made Sunni doctors and patients feel unwelcome, is more than justified.

DR. HEBA ABDUL WAHAB: From my perspective, it was a — such a scary place to go to. I used to cry in the morning when I was going to work. I was too scared.

What’s happening in Salmaniya was completely unethical. Those nurses and doctors deserve to be prosecuted and punished and some — some of those doctors and nurses, even their degree, their medical degree, should be taken away from them.

MARGARET WARNER: Another grateful Sunni, Jamal Fakhro, vice chair of the royally-appointed Shura Council, he heads an international accounting firm’s 300-person office here.

JAMAL FAKHRO, Shura Council: I wasn’t able to come to enter my office with my people for four weeks. Why? Because the demonstrators blocked the street. It wasn’t blocked by the government. It was blocked by the demonstrators.

It was very important for us to have this law of — of national security. If we didn’t have it, you wouldn’t have Bahrain that you see today.

MARGARET WARNER: To send a message to world investors and travelers that things are getting back to normal here, the king declared last week that the state of emergency would end June 1. And the monarchy says it’s committed to further reforms and dialogue.

Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the leading predominantly Shiite opposition party, Al Wefaq, says he’s ready to talk. But he says, feelings are so raw now, that he can’t guarantee his followers won’t want to return to the streets instead.

SHEIKH ALI SALMAN, Al Wefaq party (through translator): If the authorities were gambling on bringing fears to the people, so that they will not march again, all what you have planted is more motivation to march again.

MARGARET WARNER: Most Sunnis and Shias told us they need each other if they want to preserve the good life this wealthy island has enjoyed. But they also say the crisis has widened the fault line of mistrust between them.

If that sectarian divide opens further, what happens in this Persian Gulf kingdom could have a ripple effect across the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret will continue her reporting from Bahrain through this week.